Monday, August 31, 2009

Mendelssohn's Sister and Her World

Felix Mendelssohn's older sister, Fanny, was also a pianist and compoer. She had begun piano lessons as a child and was taking composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter before Felix did. She quickly exhibited admirable talent in both areas.

However, the prevailing prejudice toward women in the public eye at this time in history meant that while it was fine for Felix to pursue a career in music as a performer and a composer, it was not for his sister.

When she was 15, her father Abraham told her that music might be a career for Felix – he was only 11 years old at the time – “but for you, it will be only an ornament.” In other words, she could play and compose as much as she wanted to but she couldn't make a living at it. Her primary role in life was to be a wife and mother. The men earned the money.

In fact, it wasn't so much as “making a living at it” as that she would not be able to earn money by it. She could perform privately as often as she wished – as in their Sunday musicales – but not in public where people would pay to hear her and she would be paid or that critics would criticize her playing in public newspapers.

Two years after his father Abraham died and Felix was now 28 and recently married, his mother Lea asked Felix to help Fanny get her music published. He declined but explained that publishing meant a commitment to continuously be supplying new works to be published. Fanny was not in the habit of writing a great deal (though one wonders if she could have been, given the opportunity). He would assist her if she really felt it necessary (or to please her husband) but he wrote “I cannot encourage her to do what I do not deem right myself.”

People point out that Clara Wieck Schumann had long been one of the major pianists of the day. While she no longer wrote very much music as the wife of Robert Schumann and the mother of eight children, still, she was busy concertizing all across Europe, especially following the final illness and eventual death of her husband.

The difference is primarily one of class. While Berlin was more conservative (and conventional) than Leipzig, Clara was also not from a wealthy upper-middle-class family. Her father, Friedrich Wieck (pronounced VEEK) had planned a musical career for her when she was a child (in fact, he had plans to turn her into a concert pianist even before she was born, but that's a long story and doesn't concern us, here). He even took Schumann to court to keep them from getting married because he did not want him interfering with Clara's career (or the money he would've made from it). But Robert was the composer in the family and when he was busy writing, she couldn't even practice because it would disturb him. And of course there were the children...

In Fanny Mendelssohn's case, being from a wealthy family, it was just unseemly that a woman should earn money, especially upon the concert stage.

It's not the she chafed under this, though at times it irritated her.

There are a series of letters between her and Felix while he was in Paris, complaining about all the music he had to hear and all the composers he had to meet. She practically exploded, being cooped up in the house back in Berlin. What she wouldn't have given to be there with him!

She continued to compose as well as perform at the family musicales. When she married her husband, Wilhelm Hensel – technically, we should refer to her as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, by the way – they lived in one of the former “guest-houses” on the Mendelssohn House's property in Berlin. Though given privacy, she was essentially her parents' neighbor and could easily take over managing the Sunday musicales. That was to be her outlet.

Even though she had known Hensel for at least five years - an artist, he had sketched portraits of everybody in the family but tone-deaf (they used to joke, in this musical family, that Hensel couldn't even hum a popular old Christmas carol) - she wasn't sure how her new married life would affect her musical life. Would her husband forbid her to compose music?

The story is told that the day after their wedding, Hensel asked her to sit down at the piano. He placed a blank piece of manuscript paper in front of her, implying she could write whatever she wanted.

In 1847, when she was 41, she was in the midst of rehearsing an up-coming performance of one her brother's choral works when she had a stroke and died later that day. Felix himself was so distraught at this early and sudden death, it affected his own health in such away that he never recovered, and he deteriorated until, six months later, he had a series of strokes and died as well.

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They had been very close all their lives. They used to joke about being twins, they were so much alike. He was proud of her musicianship and specifically showed some of her songs to Goethe's wife who then sang them for the great poet during one of his visits.

In order for some of her music to reach a wider public, he even published some of her songs and piano pieces as his own. This wasn't meant that he was trying to steal it or gain anything by not telling the truth about who wrote it: it was just “unseemly” or “unlady-like” for it to have been published under her own name. In fact, Fanny was quite flattered by it. Only a few people knew the true identity of these songs.

(This portrait, right, of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was made in 1842).

He wrote to her to tell her an amusing story. When he was in London in 1842, he met Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, for a social afternoon of talk and music-making. When the Prince mentioned that she loved to sing his songs, Mendelssohn asked her to choose her favorite and sing it for him. The song she chose was actually one that Fanny had written. He told his sister how it delighted him to know this but he was unable to confess the truth to the Queen of England!

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Fanny Mendelssohn performed once in public, playing her brother's 1st Piano Concerto (the work Stuart Malina will be performing with the Harrisburg Symphony in February 2010).

There is another story I had read in program notes for her one substantial orchestral work, a 10-minute overture called, simply, “Overture.” I've not seen it mentioned anywhere else so I'm not sure if it's true but it would be possible.

It was the only time she conducted any of her music in public, at a concert in a city in East Prussia where she was visiting friends. In her honor, the orchestra had programmed an Overture she had composed around 1830 (in fact, it is only known as “Overture”) and at the concert, the conductor asked her to lead the orchestra for it. Whether it was because she was far from Berlin and her social circle, a few years after her father had died and was no longer around to disapprove.

Despite all this, she composed about 250 songs, 125 piano pieces, an occasionally heard piano trio, a string quartet I've never heard, four cantatas and an oratorio called simply “Oratorio on Biblical Themes.” All these were written for and performed in the family's Sunday afternoon musicales.

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If the Mendelssohns had lived in Paris or London, it's possible Fanny's life could have been different. But the class role of a woman in society might not have been very different in a different country.

In the United States, there was a young woman who had been a child prodigy, able to sing counter-melodies to the songs her mother sang to her when she was 2 and composing waltzes at the piano when she was 4. Amy Marcy Cheney only had one year of training in composition, but made her debut as a concert pianist when she was either 16 in Boston. One of the works she performed was a piano concerto by a friend of Felix Mendelssohn's, a German composer named Ignaz Moscheles (pronounced MOH-sheh-less).

Her plans for a career, however, came to a halt when she was married to a Boston physician named Dr. Henry Beach who was 24 years older than she was. She agreed to limit her concertizing to one performance a year, donating the money she'd earn to charity. But he didn't say she couldn't compose.

So that is how she realized her musical needs. She wrote lots of piano music and a large number of songs which could be played at home for her own musicales. But she also composed a large Mass for chorus and orchestra was had quite a public success in 1892 and four years later she composed the first symphony ever written by an American Woman (it's called the “Gaelic” Symphony because it uses Irish and Scottish tunes as the basis for its themes). She signed herself Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.

But soon after her husband died in 1910, she was back on the road, concertizing across the USA and Europe, continuing to perform and compose until she died in 1944.

It is only recently that composers who are women have begun being treated on more equal footings with those who are men. One of the busiest composer today is Jennifer Higdon. A string quartet of hers will be performed this season at the January 23rd concert of Harrisburg's Market Square Concerts. She has an orchestral work on the program with the Harrisburg Symphony the following weekend.

She has many new works being commissioned, including an opera to be written for the San Francisco Opera. Women of the previous generation were breaking through the “glass ceiling,” sometimes having their music performed or getting commissions for new ones because they were women. Composers of this generation are getting performances and commissions because they're composers: the fact they also happen to be women is less of an issue.

Dr. Dick