This week, it’s time for another History Hunt success story! Our featured composer was forgotten for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but recently, dedicated History Hunters have started bringing her to public notice at long last.
Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Hensel (birth name: Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn) was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805. Her mother, Lea, was a pianist and singer and her father was a banker. When Hensel was born, her father wrote a letter to his mother-in-law, saying that he thought his new daughter had a pianist’s fingers–and he turned out to be right.
Hensel’s first music teacher was her mother, who had studied with one of famous composer J.S. Bach’s own students. She was a good teacher, making sure that she never pushed her little daughter past her ability to concentrate, but after a while, she began looking for other teachers to help Hensel grow.
The first music teacher Hensel had who wasn’t her mother was Marie Bigot, who had met both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Hensel studied with her when she was eleven and living in Paris for a few months. Later, when the family had moved to Berlin, her new teachers were former students of still more famous composers–Hensel’s family wanted nothing but the best education for their children.
In a way, it was strange that Hensel and her younger sister received the same education as her two little brothers. Their father believed that women had no business doing anything but taking care of the house and their husband and children when they married. However, even though he discouraged Hensel from taking her musical talents seriously, he still wanted her to have a good education.
In 1816, a few years earlier, Hensel and her siblings were all baptised in a Christian church and her father changed the family name to Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though both sides of her family were Jewish, prejudice against Jewish people was even stronger in the 1800s. Her father wanted to protect his children from antisemitism by hiding their heritage.
As she grew, it became clear that Hensel was a brilliant student of music. By the time she was thirteen, she had memorised and performed all twenty-four preludes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in front of an audience as a surprise for her father. Unfortunately, the next year, when Hensel was fourteen, her father was already discouraging her from making a career as a composer or performer. Even so, Hensel’s first composition, which she wrote later that year, was in honour of her father’s birthday. And in spite of his sexism, she kept on writing music at a terrific rate. She also played the piano at the musical parties her parents hosted, which started when she was about seventeen.
When it came to bringing her compositions to the world, Hensel received some help from her younger brother, Felix. In 1827, he was publishing some of his own compositions–but he agreed to include some of his sister’s to get around their father’s restrictions, because their father didn’t want Hensel to publish a single note. He did it again three years later in another collection.
However, this sometimes got a bit awkward for Felix. When he was visiting Queen Victoria of England, he asked if the queen, who was a talented singer, would perform one of his pieces for him. She was happy to do so, and selected her favourite–which was written by Hensel! It was a credit to Felix’s honesty that he confessed he hadn’t actually written the piece the queen had sung. He then asked if she’d be willing to perform something he’d actually written himself!
Hensel married a court painter when she was twenty-four, and she actually wrote her own processional for the wedding (a piece to be played when the wedding party enters the church). However, there was a bit of a problem with the recessional–her brother was meant to have written the piece for when she left the church, but he ran out of time. When Hensel heard at the wedding rehearsal the day before that he wasn’t going to be able to finish the music, she promptly sat down, ignored her family and friends, and dashed off a piece in three-and-a-half hours!
After her marriage, it became very hard for Hensel to find time to compose and practice her music. Although her husband was supportive of her–even making sure she had time to play the piano at least a little every day–there was simply too many expectations for women of that time for her to manage. Still, she did her best to keep music in her life: she started up the musical parties her parents had hosted in her own home. She organised which music would be played when for them, composed music of her own, performed, and conducted. She also started a choir to perform during the gatherings, which she conducted and accompanied on the piano. Hensel’s musical gatherings became extremely popular and attracted more than a few famous composers looking for an invitation–including previously featured composer Clara Schumann!
In 1839, Hensel got the chance to fulfill one of her biggest dreams: she and her family spent the entire year travelling throughout Italy. And while she was there, she finally was able to perform for other famous musicians of her day and receive the respect she deserved.
Though Hensel experienced a fairly strong case of composer’s block when she was in her late twenties, by the time she was thirty, her confidence had come back enough to consider publishing some of her music. Unfortunately, her younger brother Felix, who had helped her when they were both younger, had let society and his father’s opinions shape his ideas about the role of women in music. Instead of helping her again, he was against Hensel sharing her music with the world. Fortunately for the world, Hensel ignored him and published some of her music, which became so popular that Felix was forced to admit he was wrong.
Hensel never did get the opportunity to publish all the music she had written–and she had written a lot: over 450 works! But more and more people have heard of her these days, and music by her is being discovered all the time. I can only hope that one day, all of Hensel’s music will be easy to find and her name will be well known by all fans of classical music, not just History Hunters.
Here’s “September: At the River” from Hensel’s Das Jahr (The Year), considered her “most important piano work” (FannyHensel.de):
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To Learn More (Sources):
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A Life of Music within Domestic Limits by Eugene Gates
Fanny Hensel born Mendelssohn at FannyHensel.de
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel at The Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Fanny Mendelssohn at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel at Naxos.com
Image source: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel – Nocturne en sol mineur