About this Recording
8.572781 - MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL, F.: Lieder, Vol. 2 (Craxton, Dorn)
English  German 

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805–1847)
Songs • 2


For many years Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was known only as a footnote in the history of music, if she was known at all. Even now the fame of her younger brother Felix far eclipses her own, despite the fact that she was a gifted composer in her own right. Descended from the well-known philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Fanny was born in Hamburg in 1805 into a highly cultured family. Her upbringing was unusual, and somewhat conflicted, although she was given more or less the same musical education as Felix (and apparently showed similar promise) she was always made aware that as a woman, she would be unable to follow the path for which she had such obvious natural aptitude. On her twenty-third birthday, her father Abraham instructed her to ‘become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife’. Even her beloved brother Felix, with whom she had an intensely close relationship, was ambivalent towards her musical aspirations. Although supportive of her work, even passing off some of her compositions as his own, he always discouraged her from publishing under her own name.

In 1829 Fanny did get married—to the artist Wilhelm Hensel, and a year later she gave birth to their son Sebastian. She remained musically active, travelling to Italy several times, where she met the young French composer Charles Gounod, who later remarked that she had introduced him to Bach’s keyboard music. She was a passionate champion of Bach, and had in 1820 joined the Berlin Singakademie, which was dedicated to reviving music of the past. Fanny also continued to give private performances (her only public appearance took place in 1838) and to compose, although it was not until 1837 that she ventured to publish anything—the single song Die Schiffende. Her first collection of songs did not appear until 1846. Publication represented a step towards independence for Fanny, and future years would presumably have seen more pieces appearing in print—but her nascent career was cut short by her untimely death. On 14 May 1847, a day after completing her final Lied, she died from a stroke caused by a cerebral haemorrhage.

Songs and piano pieces make up the bulk of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s compositions, which number around five hundred. As she was considered by her contemporaries to be a ‘salon’ composer, such small-scale works as these were a socially acceptable outlet for her talents. The sensitive word-setting, small-scale structures and deeply personal expressiveness of Fanny’s songs are all typical of Lieder in the German Romantic tradition, particularly as exemplified by Robert Schumann, but her unique harmonic sense and gift for melody are entirely her own. The Lied was, in many ways, the most quintessential of all Romantic genres—fragile, fragmentary and intimate—and it allowed Fanny to demonstrate true mastery of her craft.

Most of the Lieder on this disc date from the mid 1820s and 1830s, and set both German and English poetry (though Fanny only began to learn English relatively late in life). This is unusual among her oeuvre; the poetry that she normally chose to set was almost exclusively written by German authors of the Romantic era, including many of the most famous literary names of the day. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) are perhaps best-known, and were favourites of contemporary composers. Goethe, in particular, served as a muse to such eminent musicians as Schumann (both Robert and Clara), Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, as well as countless others. He is represented here by several poems, including the poignant Wenn ich mir in stiller Seele and Mignon, as well as the two much-set Suleika poems from his West-östlicher Divan. In fact, however, both Suleika lyrics (barring one strophe) were written by Marianne von Willemer, an actress and dancer who became a close friend of the famous poet. They were published under Goethe’s name in 1819, and it was not until more than thirty years later that their true authorship became known.

In a similar vein, Verlust (Und wüsstens die Blumen), a setting of Heine, was originally published under Felix Mendelssohn’s name as his Op 9, No 10. Before 1837 such surreptitious publications (including more than a dozen songs) were her only means of reaching a wider public with her music. Seven other settings of Heine’s work are featured here, not including three poems freely translated into English by Mary Alexander—Once o’er my dark and troubled life, I wander through the wood and weep and What means the lonely tear? Mary and Fanny had struck up a correspondence in 1833, and soon afterwards Mary sent her the translations. Fanny composed all three in 1834, the first time she had ever set texts in English. Of the German-language songs, the opening track Wenn der Frühling kommt mit dem Sonnenschein and Fichtenbaum und Palme are perhaps the most successful; the latter, at once sorrowful and tinged with hope, is especially touching.

Perhaps emboldened by her success with Mary Alexander’s translations, Fanny later went on to set several poems by the notorious Lord Byron (1788–1824): Bright be the place of thy soul (1837), Farewell! (1837) and There be none of Beauty’s daughters (1836). The serenely joyful Bright be the place of thy soul, with its long, flowing vocal lines and sensitive word-setting, demonstrates that her English must have been good, despite learning the language in adulthood. Also represented on this disc is a poem originally written in English and translated into German by Philipp Kaufmann (1802–1846), as well as Scottish poet Robert Burns’s (1759–1796) Song – Farewell to Eliza, rendered in German as Von dir, mein Lieb, ich scheiden muss (1841).

The poetry of the eighteenth-century balladeer Ludwig Hölty (1748–1776) is steeped in a love of the natural world, a love which Fanny evidently shared. Songs like Die Schiffende (1837), its lively piano accompaniment evoking the wind, or the mournful nightingales of Die Mainacht (1838) and Seufzer (1827) feature the combination of natural metaphor and human emotion so dear to German Romanticism. The lesser-known poets Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) and Justinus Kerner (1786–1862) are also represented here, with one poem apiece, both composed somewhat later in Fanny’s life: Kerner’s dramatic lament Totenklage (1841) and Rückert’s ode to beauty Zauberkreis (1843/4).

Being ‘Mendelssohn’s sister’ has often inhibited consideration of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel as a composer in her own right, a tendency reinforced by the similarity of their musical styles. Her work, however, belies this glib dismissal, revealing instead a distinct and richly powerful musical voice—a voice that deserves to be heard.

Caroline Waight

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