Fanny Hensel (1805–1847)

Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn and her husband, print based on a contemporary drawing
Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn and her husband, print based on a contemporary drawing

Fanny Caecilie Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on 14th November 1805 as the daughter of Abraham Mendelssohn (1776-1835) and Lea Mendelssohn, née Salomon (1777-1842). She received an early and very extensive musical education by her family and selected teachers, such as Carl Friedrich Zelter, and was a member of the Berlin Singakademie, a music society (and concert hall). Due to familial and societal restrictions, Fanny, in contrast to her brother Felix, was not allowed to live out her talent publicly – a concert career as a pianist or the publication of her compositions were not approved of by her family. Nevertheless, the semi-public “Sunday music” events created by her father offered her a musical space which she was able to shape from 1831: There, she would perform as a pianist and conductor in front of larger gatherings in the garden hall of the family estate at Leipziger Straße street 3, and also present her own compositions. In 1829, Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who supported her in her artistic work. An inspiring journey to Italy which she undertook together with husband in 1839/40, and where Fanny was well received as a pianist and composer, was also reflected in her compositions. Fanny, who composed her whole life, published her own works, Opp. 1-7, in 1846 and 1847, despite her brother’s reservations. After her passing, her Opp. 8-11 appeared on the initiative of Wilhelm Hensel. Her wide-ranging oeuvre, which is not yet completely explored to this day and is seldom performed, comprises more than 460 titles.

Whilst Clara Wieck had met Felix Mendelssohn as early as 1832 during her concert tour in Paris and also attended his concerts in Leipzig, performed his works and appeared jointly with him, the first meetings between Clara and Fanny, according to Robert Schumann’s household diary, presumably only took place in Leipzig in 1843. A more intensive exchange occurred in February/March 1847, when Clara and Robert Schumann stayed in Berlin – on 17th February, Robert conducted the Berlin premiere of his oratorio Paradise and the Peri, Op. 50, and Clara gave two concerts at the Singakademie concert hall. On 4th March 1847, Robert and Clara were invited to a soirée at the house of Fanny Hensel at Leipziger Straße street 3, and Fanny noted in her diary: “[On 4th March, we had a most brilliant company, with the Radziwiłłs, the Rossi lady, the Westmorlands, the Decker lady, coughing and silent like the Rossi lady, and the Schumann lady; Melitta Behrend and I were doing the honours of the music, and Melitta was doing the honours of the evening. […] I see the Schumann lady very often, she comes to see me almost daily and I have become quite fond of her].” The reason for the daily visits was certainly not only the portrait which Wilhelm Hensel was making of Clara but also the mutual sympathy between the two women. The Schumanns had even considered moving to Berlin and were profoundly shocked when Fanny passed away unexpectedly on 14th May 1847. Shortly after her passing, Clara wrote to her friend Elise List on 15th June 1847: “[She was certainly the most excellent musician of her time, and a very important person for the entire musical life in Berlin – one would hear only good music from her. I had dedicated to her my Trio [Op. 17] which I am expecting back from the printer any day, and now she is no more! – I and my husband were utterly shocked by this incident]!”

Cf. Ute Büchter-Römer: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Hamburg, 2001.

Cf. Schumann-Briefedition, Series II, Vol. 1: Freundes- und Künstlerbriefwechsel (Robert und Clara Schumann im Briefwechsel mit der Familie Mendelssohn), edited by Kristin R. M. Krahe, Katrin Reyersbach and Thomas Synofzik, Cologne, 2009, pp. 311–313.

Cf. Monika Schwarz-Danuser: “2. Fanny (Caecilie)”, in: Ludwig Finscher (ed.), Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Individuals 11, Cologne et al., 2004, cols. 1534–1542.

(Theresa Schlegel, 2020, translated by Th. Henninger)

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