Fanny Mendelssohn: A Pre-Hensel Tale

Recently I was looking at a Fanny Mendelssohn manuscript held at the Library of Congress, and was struck by the dating of the work. At first I did not realize the significance of the dates that were on the manuscript, but the itch of a memory was waiting to be scratched, so I explored further. The composition in front of me was not just one of over 400 works that the composer had written in her short life; it was a work of personal significance to her and symbolic of her struggle to flourish openly as a composer.

Portrait of Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

Portrait of Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

September of 1829 did not go as smoothly for Fanny Mendelssohn as she might have hoped. She suffered from a series of intense toothaches, noting a third extraction on September 23 (Tillard 172). All had seemed to be in order for her upcoming marriage, but then her brother Felix fell out of a carriage and injured his knee while still abroad, making it impossible for him to travel to the wedding (Tillard 169). Felix had also intended to provide the music for the ceremony, but this did not materialize in time, leaving Fanny in a bit of a predicament.

I’ll digress here for a moment to offer a small bit of background: Fanny and Felix were close, but there was a degree of tension in their relationship that was brought on by Fanny’s work as a composer—or perhaps more appropriately, the tension was due to Felix’s reaction to Fanny’s creative activity. Nobody who knew her denied that Fanny was a formidable musician, and her productivity as a pianist and conductor were encouraged by her family as worthy endeavors of her private life. Publicly acknowledged compositions were another matter, however. A mixture of generally accepted but nevertheless repressive societal values restricted Fanny’s ability to compose openly with the freedom she desired.

This is not an anecdote about Fanny’s professional difficulties as a composer, however, but rather a success story of the industrious composer who overcomes considerable adversity. Perhaps it belongs in the same class of personal triumphs that Fanny enjoyed at pivotal moments in her life, including:

  • the moment in 1842 when Felix admitted to Queen Victoria that the song Italien, published as his op.8/3, had actually been composed by his sister Fanny. It was a moment made richer because the Queen had selected this song in particular to sing with Felix at the piano (Todd 95, 285);
  • the decision to publish under her own name, unfortunately arrived at near the end of her life, but at a point when she no longer required but still desired the approbation of her brother. Felix finally acquiesced with his professional blessing, signing his letter as a “fellow journeyman tailor” (Todd 315-316).

Returning now to Fanny’s predicament—her nuptials needed new music. She had never composed music for the organ before, but decided to seize the moment on September 28, 1829 (186 years ago today!), writing a Prelude in F major:

First page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

First page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

This first date that tickled my memory we know to be September 28 because that is the date Fanny gave at the close of the Prelude:

Last page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ, dated at the end beneath her signature, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

Last page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ, dated at the end beneath her signature, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

What made me recall that this was not just any organ piece was the second date on the manuscript, located on the work’s cover page:

Detail from cover  page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ,  from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

Detail from cover page of Fanny Mendelssohn’s F-major Prelude for organ, from “The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

This piece was composed for the third of October, 1829—a date that rang wedding bells in my mind, as it was the imminent date of her union with Wilhelm Hensel. And thus we have the last work that Fanny composed as a Mendelssohn Bartholdy—or do we? The story gets better, as a moment of panic arose when Fanny was unable to locate the Bach Pastorella score (BWV 590) intended for the recessional (Todd 139). As R. Larry Todd wrote in his recent biography of Fanny,

“During the Polterabend, the evening before the wedding day, and by tradition a time of considerable merriment, a rather implausible scene unfolded in the Mendelssohn household. While Wilhelm marked the occasion by drawing a pagan scene of a satyr reveling with naked figures, Fanny began composing ‘in the presence of all the guests’ and, shortly after midnight, finished a weighty recessional in G major.” (Todd 139)

 Fanny Mendelssohn’s last composition before getting married was, then, a second organ work completed on the same date as the wedding. While Fanny’s music would continue to develop after her marriage, this pre-Hensel tale demonstrates the fruitful evolution of her art, brought about by her own dedication to the craft and distinguishing her from her brother. To create two organ works composed and performed in the space of six days—at such a significant event—is a courageous feat. Despite being new to the instrument as a composer, Fanny Mendelssohn showed in her swiftly-penned pieces the “mettle in her pedal” and keyboard writing for the organ, and further asserted her claim as an independent composer.

Sources:
“The Mendelssohn family” scrapbook, Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation.

Tillard, Françoise. Fanny Mendelssohn. Trans. By Camille Naish. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996.

Todd, R. Larry. Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.