This Day in Jewish History

1847: An Under-appreciated Female Composer Dies

By all accounts a brilliant musician, Fanny Mendelssohn was always overshadowed by her brother Felix.

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May 14, 1847, is the date on which composer Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Hensel died, at the age of 41.

Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805. She was the first of four children of Abraham Mendelssohn and the former Lea Salomon. Abraham was the son of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the Enlightenment intellectual who tried to reconcile life as a traditional Jew with the idea of being integrated into modern secular society. Moses succeeded famously in his own life, but of the six of his 10 children who survived to adulthood, only two continued practicing Judaism.

Abraham Mendelssohn, a highly successful banker, felt that integration required giving up the Jewish religion, and he and Lea decided not to have either of their sons, Felix and Paul, circumcised at birth. Even before converting, Abraham raised his children as Protestants. When Fanny was confirmed, in a Protestant church in 1820, her father wrote to her, “We have educated you and your brothers and sisters in the Christian faith, because it is the creed of most civilized people today.”

Abraham and Lea themselves underwent baptism in 1822 and changed their family name from Mendelssohn to Bartholdy, which was the surname that Lea’s brother, Jakob, had adopted, taken from a piece of property he purchased. Although Abraham was convinced, “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius,” Felix (1809-1847), who became a world-famous composer, called himself “Mendelssohn Bartholdy,” as did Fanny, until her marriage, when she took the surname of her husband, Wilhelm Hensel.

The tragedy

The great tragedy of Fanny’s life is that, by most accounts, she was as great a musical talent as her brother Felix, but was denied the opportunity to reach her full potential. She played the piano and was a prolific composer, but she published very little of her more than 460 compositions under her name during her lifetime. Society, and in particular, her family, prohibited women from having professional lives (even for a man, being a musician was not a highly respectable undertaking). According to her father, writing to Fanny in 1820, “Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, and never the fundamental bass-line of your existence and activity.”

As a child, Fanny had the same elite education as her male brothers, and she and Felix studied music with the same teachers. (When Goethe met her, in 1822, he described Fanny as “Felix’s equally gifted sister.”) At times, he even published some of her songs under his name, a practice that led to some embarrassment when he met Queen Victoria, who expressed a desire to sing him her favorite of his songs, “Italien.” Felix had to admit that his sister was its composer.

Fanny married Wilhelm Hensel, a court painter, in 1829, and the following year, had her only child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel — named for her three favorite composers. She revived a Sunday musical salon initiated by her mother, held at the Bartholdy family mansion on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin, and sometimes performed there. The only time she performed in public was at a Berlin charity concert in 1838, playing her brother’s G-minor piano concerto. In 1846, she published a collection of her songs, but generally, resisted the temptation, at the urging of Felix.

On May 5, 1847, Fanny Hensel suffered a stroke while rehearsing an oratorio by her brother for performance at the Sunday salon. She died later that day. Felix also died of stroke six months later.

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