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Fanny Mendelssohn
Birth: Nov. 14, 1805
Hamburg-Mitte
Hamburg, Germany
Death: May 14, 1847
Berlin-Mitte
Berlin, Germany

Composer, Pianist. The gifted sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, she was forbidden from pursuing music as a career and has only recently begun to emerge from her brother's shadow. Fanny was born in Hamburg, Germany, the oldest child of banker Abraham Mendelssohn and granddaughter of famed German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. She was raised in Berlin from 1811, and in 1816 the family converted to Christianity, adding "Bartholdy" to their surname. Fanny and Felix were both musical prodigies and their wealthy parents spared no expense in giving them the best education, including composition studies with Carl Friedrich Zelter. By age 13 Fanny could play the first book of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" from memory; Felix conceded she was the better pianist. The following year she wrote her first composition, a song for her father's birthday. At that time the Mendelssohn home hosted Sunday salons at which the children were the star attractions, and important musicians came to marvel at their abilities. Fanny and Felix developed a remarkably close relationship built on affection and a shared love of their art. After Felix became a famous composer they would write to each other daily, and he often sought her advice on musical matters. "Fanny, you really know what God was thinking when he invented music", he told her. But in keeping with the social code of the era - which dictated that middle-class women were suitable only for domesticity - Abraham Mendelssohn forbade Fanny to consider music as a career. When she was 15 her father laid down the law: "For you [music] can and must be only an ornament and never the basis for your living and being". And in a later missive he admonished, "You must school yourself more seriously and eagerly for your true profession, a young woman's only profession: being mistress of the house". Even here the family put roadblocks in her way. At 17 she fell in love with Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel, but the match was rejected by Fanny's mother Lea because of his inferior social status. Fanny never considered another fiancee, even when Hensel spent five years in Italy and the two were not allowed to correspond. Despite these setbacks she continued to compose. She cultivated a style of piano miniatures later popularized by Felix as "Songs Without Words", though it is unclear which sibling actually invented the genre. She also contributed songs to Felix's Op. 8 and Op. 9 collections (1827, 1830), which were published under his name only. Years later he performed the Op. 8 songs for England's Queen Victoria, and when she declared that the "Italien" was her favorite, Felix had to admit it was written by Fanny. In 1829 she was finally allowed to marry Hensel, and the couple moved into a garden house on the Mendelssohn estate in Berlin. They had one child. Hensel supported her creative aspirations and in 1832 she revived the private Sunday domestic concerts that had been such an important part of her childhood. These salons, which accommodated up to 100 guests, gave Fanny the performing outlet she desperately needed; she played piano, conducted a woman's chorus, and introduced her new music to an audience of friends and admirers. But the lack of any objective, outside stimulus depressed her. While Felix kept her posted about his international triumphs, Fanny lamented to a friend, "I am more or less alone with my music". After her father's death in 1835, Hensel and Fanny's mother urged her to start publishing her work, but when it came to music only Felix's approval mattered to her - and it wasn't forthcoming. Like his father, Felix was a product of his time in social attitudes, but the reasons for his opposition were probably more complex. Sibling rivalry may have played a role, or he may have interpreted her modesty and periods of self-doubt as a lack of commitment. He also had his own inhibitions about publishing (only a fraction of his output saw print in his lifetime). Crestfallen, Fanny continued to chafe as a dilettante in her gilded cage. In 1838 she made her only public appearance as a pianist, performing Felix's Piano Concerto No. 1 at a Berlin charity concert (a socially acceptable occasion for an "amateur" of her station). A perspicacious English critic wrote, "Had Frau Hensel been a poor man's daughter, she would have been known throughout the world, alongside Frau Schumann and Madame Pleyel, as a female pianist of the highest order". A turning point was a year-long trip (1839 to 1840) she and Hensel made to Italy. There she won the praise of Charles Gounod and other young musicians who helped restore her confidence. The fruit of this experience was her ambitious piano cycle "Das Jahr" ("The Year", 1841), the first time all 12 months had been depicted in music. In 1842, Lea Mendelssohn died and Fanny became mistress of the estate. Her salon was now attracting distinguished visitors from all over Europe and she was besieged with offers from publishers for her music. In 1846, at age 40, she decided to take the plunge regardless of what her family thought. "Since I know in advance that you won't be pleased, I'll go about this awkwardly", she wrote Felix. "I'm beginning to publish". His anger can be imagined. It took him a month to reply, but when he did he cooly backed down and offered his "professional blessings upon your decision to enter our guild". Over the next year Fanny brought out seven small collections of her work: four books of songs, two books of piano pieces, and a book of partsongs. She also wrote her finest chamber opus, the Piano Trio (1846). Tragically, it was too little, too late. For some time she had suffered from nosebleeds and headaches, signs of the high blood pressure that ran in her family. On May 14, 1847, while rehearsing one of Felix's cantatas for a Sunday concert, Fanny stopped to remark that her hands had gone numb. She collapsed at the piano and died that evening from a massive stroke. She was 41. On her desk was a song she had completed the day before, to Eichendorff's poem "Bergelust". Its concluding words and her music for them were engraved on her tombstone: "Thoughts and songs pass until they reach the heavenly kingdom". Felix never recovered from the loss. His last major work, the String Quartet No. 6, was inspired by Fanny's death and is probably the most emotional piece he ever wrote. He outlived his sister by only six months and was buried beside her in Berlin. Fanny Mendelssohn left 466 compositions, all scaled for the modest dimensions of the salon. They include 250 art songs, 125 piano pieces, the Piano Quartet (1824), two Piano Sonatas (1824, 1843), the cantatas "Job" (1831) and "Cholera Music" (also known as "Oratorio from Scenes of the Bible, 1831), the String Quartet (1834), and her only known orchestral score, the Overture in C major (1832). Her style is a distinct blend of romantic spirit and classical form, more passionate and harmonically adventurous than her brother's; there are moments of the Piano Trio that prefigure early Brahms. Fanny's brilliance as a pianist is evident in her technically challenging keyboard music. How she would have developed as a professional musician, or had she lived to build on her belated independence, are frustrating "what ifs" of music history. For 150 years after her death her accomplishments were all but unknown to the public. In the late 20th Century a rise in studies of women composers brought a new focus to this sadly suppressed artist. Several of her compositions are now available in recordings, but the bulk of her output remains unpublished. (bio by: Bobb Edwards) 
 
Family links: 
 Parents:
  Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1776 - 1835)
  Felicia Pauline Solomon Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1777 - 1842)
 
 Spouse:
  Wilhelm Hensel (1794 - 1861)
 
 Children:
  Felix Ludwig Sebastian Hensel (1830 - 1898)*
 
 Sibling:
  Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 - 1847)
  Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)*
 
*Calculated relationship
 
Burial:
Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof I
Kreuzberg
Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg
Berlin, Germany
 
Maintained by: Find A Grave
Originally Created by: David Conway
Record added: Oct 06, 2002
Find A Grave Memorial# 6825679
Fanny Mendelssohn
Added by: Bobb Edwards
 
Fanny Mendelssohn
Added by: Bauer Ute
 
Fanny Mendelssohn
Added by: David Conway
 
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- R I P
 Added: Nov. 14, 2014

- Ryan D. Curtis
 Added: Sep. 6, 2014

- Terry Topin Kaufman
 Added: Jun. 24, 2014
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