Fanny Mendelssohn: The Real Prodigy of the Family

In early 19th century Berlin, banker Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife Lea (née Salomon) Mendelssohn hired only the city’s top tutors to educate their four children in academics, music, and art.

Each parent came from a family of wealth, learning, and culture. But as “New Christians” (recent converts from Judaism), they spared nothing in raising accomplished children who would be welcomed into the city’s cultural elite. About that time, to acknowledge their new identity, the Mendelssohns appended the family name with the more Christian sounding “Bartholdy.” 

Fannie Mendelssohn Hensel (Jewish Museum; Public Domain)

Like their mother, all four Mendelssohn children took to music. But from an early age, the two eldest—Fanny and her younger brother Felix—showed particular brilliance in piano performance and composition. 

At salon concerts in the family’s sprawling apartment, both children dazzled distinguished guests with their playing— some deeming Fanny to be even more talented than Felix. A family friend, composer Karl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), called Fanny’s playing “something special,” and her compositions “original” and “exquisite.”  

Once Fanny hit her teens, however, cultural norms forced the two children’s paths to diverge. While Felix would travel throughout Europe, performing and conducting, writing, and painting, becoming a darling of royalty and high society, Fanny would be bound by the constraints imposed on women of her class and time. That is, she was allowed to share her musical gifts only at home with family and invited guests. 

When Felix, aged twelve, traveled with Zelter to Weimar to meet with and perform for Goethe, Fanny asked her father if she, too, night enjoy at least some of those musical opportunities. His response was harsh. Music, he wrote, might become Felix’s profession, but “[f]or you it will always remain but an ornament . . . never the foundation of your existence and daily life.” That foundation, he specified in a later letter, would be her “only true calling” as a housewife.

Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Public Domain)

Disheartened but undeterred, Fanny continued to compose prodigiously. At twenty-four, she married court painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861). Unlike her father and (at times) brother, Hensel supported her composing, even after their only surviving child was born. He also encouraged her to pursue her dream of publishing her work under her own name.

Until late in her life, Fanny saw only six works published in a folio of lieder “by Felix Mendelssohn.” While visiting the English court, Felix played one of them, which elicited effuse praise from Queen Victoria. To his credit, he was quick to acknowledge his sister as the composer. Yet when their mother asked him to help Fanny publish on her own, Felix replied he could not “in good conscience encourage her, a woman, to commercialize her work.”

The issue, apparently, was not the work itself but rather its commercialization. New Christians—a generation or two out of the ghetto—felt compelled to embrace the highest standards of propriety. For women, that meant avoiding anything as crass as public display (i.e., performance) or mercantilism (i.e., publishing). Felix probably believed he was protecting both Fanny and the family name from disparagement.

Although separated geographically, Fanny and Felix would maintain a close (if fraught) lifelong bond. When Fanny, as a new mother, wrote to her brother for encouragement in writing music, Felix’s response was callous: “If I had my child to nurse, I would not want to write scores.”

Over the years, however, the two exchanged scores—each asking the other for critique. While Fanny turned to Felix for approval (which he did not always offer), he turned to her for musical advice, help in locating scores, and her expertise as a copyist. 

Despite imposed limitations, Fanny persevered. In 1830, she revived the family tradition of at-home musicales that showcased her work, attracting luminaries such as Paganini, Weber, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Ingres, Goethe, and Hegel.

That same year she received her first public notice as a composer, when John Thomson praised her songs (shown to him by Felix) in a London journal. Eight years later, she performed for the first time in public, playing her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In1846, a Berlin firm offered to release a collection of Fanny’s lieder. She chose to do so under her married name, with her birth name in smaller print below. Surely anticipating her brother’s disapproval, she wrote to him, “Laugh at me or not, I’m beginning to publish.

In Felix’s uncharacteristically formal (and possibly sarcastic) response, he offered his professional blessing: “May you have much happiness in giving pleasure to others; may you taste only the sweets and none of the bitterness of authorship; may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand.”  

In short order Fanny would publish several more lieder and piano works, which received positive reviews in respected publications. But the promising, even groundbreaking, career that seemed likely was not to be.

On May 14,1847, while rehearsing a choral work by Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn died of a stroke. She was forty-one. At the time, Felix was visiting London. When he heard the news, he collapsed. Too distraught to work, he, too, suffered a series of strokes. Six months later, at the age of thirty-eight, Felix Mendelssohn was dead. 

For a composer so hobbled by convention, Fanny Mendelssohn left behind an impressive body of over 500 works, including a piano trio, a piano quartet, an impressive string quartet (so soundly criticized by Felix that she never wrote another); an orchestral overture, four cantatas, over 125 piano pieces, and more than 250 art songs. 

In 2017, Fanny’s Easter Sonata—written in 1829 but long credited to her brother—was for the first time performed under her name by the Royal College of Music in London, on International Women’s Day.

While Fanny didn’t live long enough to experience the fulfillment (and challenges) of a real musical career, she did get to sense a shift in attitude toward female musicians. Through talent and tenacity, she set a precedent for generations of women composers to come.

Feature photo: Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by her husband Wilhelm Hensel (Public Domain)