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“Music in the Time of Cholera: Fanny’s Cantatas”


Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Following the birth of her first child, Sebastien Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel determined to revive her Sunday concert series. In his recent biography of Fanny, The Other Mendelssohn, R. Larry Todd describes how in 1831, brother Felix wrote enthusiastically to her: “Pray, give your traveling brother a commission to write something new for you.…” He’d just sent her his new setting of Psalm 115 and was keen to have her perform other of his works at her salons. Fanny herself had composed Lieder and piano pieces for the events, but after recovering from the difficult childbirth, she had an explosion of creativity that produced four large works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra including trombones.

Cappella Clausura will present “Fanny’s Cantatas” on March 30th at Emmanuel Church in Boston and March 31st at Eliot Church in Newton; ticket information here.

She wrote Lobegesang (Hymn of Praise) between February and June for Sebastien’s first birthday. Hiob (Job) was finished in October, in time for the Hensels’ second wedding anniversary. CholeraMusik, (from October—November) marked the end of a cholera epidemic in Berlin. The dramatic scene for soprano and orchestra Hero and Leander followed early in the new year. Todd writes, “Large-scale vocal compositions thus suddenly dominated Fanny’s creative efforts, as she abruptly moved from the miniature piano pieces and lieder that had preoccupied her … a turning point in her career as a composer … a new stage in her gradual progression toward becoming a professional composer.”

A century and a half later, in 1982, conductor Elke Mascha Blankenburg found the manuscript of Choleramusik in the Berlin State Library Prussian Heritage Foundation within the Mendelssohn archive. In a few years this founder of the Leonarda Ensemble Köln, Clara Schumann Orchester Köln, and artistic director the first International Woman-Composers Festival of Bonn/Köln created a performance edition. More recently, conductor / composer Conrad Misch found the manuscripts for both Lobegesang and Hiob in the archive and created new editions. All three sumptuous and beautifully crafted cantatas have been in print now for almost 20 years. Furore Verlag in Stassel makes them readily available. One can both see and hear Fanny’s strong love for J.S. Bach. Any good amateur group that can afford a Mozart-sized orchestra can manage to perform them; the three really should join the canon.

Each cantata successively reveals further developments in Fanny’s compositional skills and demonstrates the trust of the siblings in each other’s taste and vision: Felix concludes his own Lobegesang Symphony with the same text as Fanny’s; Hiob contains echoes of Felix’s Psalm 115; and much in Choleramusik anticipates Felix’s first oratorio, St Paul.

Bach was central. Mother Lea frequently played the Well-Tempered Clavier, maternal great-aunt Sarah Levy had direct ties to Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Phillip Emmanuel, and maternal grandmother Bella Salomon was the one who gave Felix a copy of the St Matthew Passion, setting off the launch of the Bach revival. And Fanny named her firstborn Sebastien.

The music world of her day knew Fanny Mendelssohn and her immense talent as a pianist, of her collaboration with her aunt and brother in the rediscovery of the St Matthew, of her Sunday series of works both large and small by Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and both Mendelssohns, and of her close musical relationship with Felix. We have letters between them that suggest she not only solicited his advice on her compositions but was influential on his and may have even given him the kernels for some of them. So why did it take so long to unearth music we knew existed?

Despite Fanny’s being four years his senior, Felix called her his Schwesterlein und Musiker (little sister and musician). Despite recognizing his daughter’s prodigious talent, Abraham Mendelssohn bade her at the age of 15 to keep music only as an “ornament” and begin to concentrate her energies on domestic duties. And despite knowing full well what a good composer she was, Felix forbade her from publishing her compositions, as it was unseemly for a woman, especially one of her station. Felix writes of his own conflict in a letter recommending her lieder: “…she has composed … German lieder, which belong to the very best we possess of lieder; still it is good … that she finds much joy in her domestic concerns, for a woman who neglects them, be it for oil colors, or for rhyme, or for double counterpoint, always calls to mind … the “Femmes Savantes” (Molière’s satire on female education), and I am afraid of that.”

Fanny herself remained conflicted about publishing and even assured her brother that she was no femme libre who would disgrace the family. Nevertheless, she was driven to compose, and was fortunate to marry Wilhelm Hensel, a gifted court painter who supported all of her endeavors. In what was to be the final year of her life, Fanny Hensel met pianist Robert von Kreudell, amanuensis to Otto von Bismarck, who came to consider her musical output as a “treasure chest” and convinced her finally to publish under her own name. In July 1846 Fanny confided in her diary: “I have now decided to publish my things. Bote and Bock has made me offers that no female dilettante has probably yet received, and in addition Schlesinger even more brilliant ones …. Felix, whom I notified about two weeks ago, has still not answered, which has somewhat hurt me.” Her letter to Felix is almost heartbreaking in its tone. “I’m afraid of my brothers at age 40, as I was of Father at age 14 … I’ve proceeded completely on my own in order to spare you any possible unpleasant moment, and I hope you won’t think badly of me.”

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel in 1842

In her creatively explosive last year she wrote 51 compositions: 17 piano pieces, 16 lieder, and 17 partsongs, among them the six Gartenlieder, four of which will be included in our March concerts. She composed on a regular basis, winnowing, revising, and polishing, and seeing her works through to press. In May of 1847 she was in her element, having assembled a chorus to rehearse Felix’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a performance the following Sunday. She lost sensation in her hands and asked someone to take over at the piano. She returned moments later, and suffered a second stroke. Fanny died that evening at the age of 42. Felix, inconsolable, died six months later, also of a stroke.

There is rarely a single reason for the subordination of any artist’s work. In Fanny’s case it had to do not only with the men in her family but also with her early death, late arrival to publishing, and the revolutions of 1848. Wars and revolutions have always destroyed history, art, and legacies, not just humans. Fortunately, much of Fanny’s work survived in libraries and in family archives, and with the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s and the sea change in musicological awareness, she finally reemerged as a figure and a composer.

Scholars continue to unearth music of women. Cappella Clausura’s roster is full of those who might have felt the need to “excuse” their efforts, asking forgiveness for stepping onto forbidden turf, blaming lack of education, as Hildegard did when she called her work “a feather on the breath of God.” Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, a capable, opinionated, and ambitious composer, planned to continue publishing. It will be our joy to sing and play her marvelous pieces for new audiences.

The author is Cappella Clausura director and a resident scholar at Brandeis’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

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