The following post is adapted from an article by Kevin Lavine, Senior Music Specialist and Reference Librarian. The complete article, part of the web presentation Felix Mendelssohn at the Library of Congress, can be read here.
Drawn together by their shared love of music and exceptional talents, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his older sister Fanny (1805-1847) developed a close relationship that was to endure throughout their lives. While Fanny’s gender prohibited her from enjoying the same social opportunities or support in developing her musical gifts, her talents appeared to be nearly as formidable as those of her more famous brother. From very early in their lives, and until Fanny’s death, Felix would regularly submit his compositions to Fanny’s discerning musical eye and ear, taking her critical advice to heart, and never hesitating to modify or excise entirely material that she found questionable. Felix called his big sister “Minerva,” after the Roman goddess of wisdom, for her highly developed musical and intellectual insight.
But if Fanny aspired to pursue a life as a performer and composer as her brother did, such hopes were quickly dashed: societal constraints at the time precluded women from pursuing musical professions. This harsh reality was made clear by Fanny’s father Abraham in an 1820 letter to her, in which he states that while music will perhaps become Felix’s profession, “for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing.” The following year Fanny met and fell in love with painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861), whom she eventually married in 1829, and subsequently settled into the “acceptable” domestic roles prescribed by society of the time. Yet her musical creativity continued to manifest itself in the prolific creation of over five hundred musical works, consisting mostly of the more intimate, ostensibly “feminine,” smaller scale genres of keyboard pieces, songs (of which she wrote over two hundred fifty alone), chamber music and choral works.
One day in May 1847, a few hours after rehearsing Felix’s cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a Sonntagsmusiken performance, Fanny collapsed and died at the age of forty-one, the victim of a stroke. She lived to witness changing attitudes towards women in musical professions, which resulted in a handful of her works having appeared in print, thereby fulfilling her lifelong dream of being considered a serious composer. Among the first female composers to have their works published, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel established a precedent for the acceptance of women into a traditionally male-dominated artistic profession.