The 175th anniversary of death – Fanny Hensel – and the eternal shadow of big little brother

Fanny Hensel, born Mendelssohn, designed by Wilhelm Hensel around 1847 (imago / United Archives International)

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy naturally fits into the ranks of important German-speaking composers of the 19th century, from Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann to Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner. His sister Fanny, who was three and a half years older, remained largely unknown, at least as a composer.

Although endowed with a similar talent and supported in her education, she was not allowed to have her works printed during the Biedermeier period, she was even largely banned. Nevertheless, she enjoyed great respect for her commitment to presenting music – and accepted the difficult role of having to take the back seat of her brother.

A cultural and artistic home

“Lea thinks the child has Bach’s fugue fingers.”: This is how the father Abraham Mendelssohn describes the first impression little Fanny is said to have made on her mother as a newborn in 1805. The parents’ exaggeration, certainly, but it describes the atmosphere and expectation , who reigned in the Mendelssohn family.

It’s an art and culture oriented climate that Fanny grows into as the firstborn. Three and a half years later, Felix is ​​born, the future star of the family. Musicologist Beatrix Borchard:

“She was a girl, unfortunately, and luckily he was a boy, which means she was allowed to do anything, especially with him, but there was this Damocles sword up here and no longer.” – it makes the father in one Letter to the 15-year-old unmistakably clear.

“What you wrote to me about your musical activities in relation to Felix was as well thought out as it was expressed. Music can become a profession for him, while for you it can always and must always be a jewel, always a means. for education, the basic basis of your being and chores Hold on to this attitude and behavior, they are feminine, and only the feminine adorns and rewards women. ”

“She knew every note that her brother composed – and vice versa”

An almost symbiotic relationship existed between the two eldest siblings, Fanny and Felix, says Beatrix Borchard. Not only because they both played the piano a lot together: “She knew every single note that her brother composed and vice versa.”

So one can actually say that the two had “a kind of correspondence in tones”. A relationship that proves itself time and time again in countless letters and diary entries and will last until the end of Fanny’s life:

“Adieu, my Hamlet! Do not forget that you are my right hand and my eyeball, so without you it will in no way slip with the music.”

Hermetic sibling communication

According to Beatrix Borchard, music was the actual language of these children “not the language of words, that is, in this language without words something could be protected that was also invulnerable from the outside.”

I have to tell you, Fanny, I only have to think of certain pieces of you to be really soft and sincere. If you need a greater worshiper than me, you can paint him or have him paint you. ”

Painting by Felix Mendelsohn-Bartholdy by Theodor Hildebrandt (1804-1874).  Oil on canvas.  Leipzig, Museum of the History of the City of Leipzig

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in oil on canvas portrayed by Theodor Hildebrandt (dpa / picture alliance / akg-images)
The brother writes in 1830 to his sister, who is now married to Wilhelm Hensel. A hint: Hensel is a painter, not a musician. And as if agreed, Felix also decides to be a passionate representative of the fine arts as his life companion. Because according to Beatrix Borchard:

“First and foremost, of course, it’s also a romantic idea to bring different arts together, and then it’s exclusive, this musical relationship between siblings and partners had no place there.”

When Fanny invited to the matinee

For many years, Fanny arranged the so-called Sunday concerts in Berlin, semi-public matinees, where good, mostly new music of the highest quality was performed – also her own. She plays the piano herself, composes for orchestra, leads the choir and is one of the first women to dare to take up the baton. And she is also a keen observer of the still restrictive Biedermeier society.

“Our political situation remains the same, that is, unequal. It is incomprehensible what the clergy in all denominations are again causing evil in the world.” – On May 14, 1847, as she was preparing for a Sunday concert, she suffered a stroke. Berlin critic Ludwig Rellstab notes:

“We were saddened by the news: Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, Mrs Fanny Hensels, has died. She preferred to perform in public with beautiful songs and did not claim the right to major things which she fully owned.”

Beatrix Borchard cites the song “I Walk Through the Silent Night” as an example: “It is an Eichendorff text that ends with the characteristic line ‘My song is only a call from dreams’. And of course it also has a symbolic meaning Character. “

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