We’re highlighting the life and music of pioneering women in classical music every weekday during March for Women's History Month.
In Fanny Mendelssohn we have yet another story of a 19th century woman’s success stifled by social conventions of the time. Despite her renowned talent as a pianist and composer, restrictions fell upon her early from her father who wrote to her at age 14, "Music will perhaps become [your brother Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Fanny Mendelssohn was born in 1805 and as a child was given piano and composition lessons at the same time as her four-years-younger brother Felix and by the same teachers. In 1816, the composition teacher wrote to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that, “[Fanny] could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special."
But Fanny struggled with the conflicting urge to compose, duty to her father and pressures of social expectations of women, especially women of a higher class into which she was born. Still, she and Felix developed an intense bond and even at age 17 Fanny wrote of Felix, “I have watched the progress of his talent step by step, and may say I have contributed to his development. I have always been his only musical adviser, and he never writes down a thought before submitting it to my judgment." And this continued throughout their lives.
Felix privately supported his sister as a performer and composer but, likely to protect her image for reasons of social propriety, publicly claimed that she had no inclination toward these until she first fulfilled her responsibilities to house and home. His support of her was so strong that he even had some of her songs published under his name.
At age 24 Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel who supported her musical pursuits and encouraged her to publish. She soon gave the first of her very few known public performances as a pianist, and her reputation as a composer became known. In 1846, at age 41, she published a collection of her songs under her own name, with blessings from Felix in personal correspondence.
Fanny died from complications of a stroke in May 1847. Felix composed a string quartet in her memory then died six months after his sister. But he had also arranged for further publication of her music and these appeared in 1850. From 1987, many of her hundreds of unprinted works began to be published by the German publisher Furore Verlag, a house dedicated exclusively to the publication of music by women.