Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was a talented musician and would undoubtedly have been one of the most influential figures of German Romanticism if her social standing, and her father and brother's adamant forbiddance of her exercising her art, had not thwarted her career.
Fanny Mendelssohn was born into a family of Berlin intellectuals. Like her brothers Felix and Paul and her sister Rebecca, she received an exemplary education. Her musical talent was apparent from a very early age and, like her brother Felix, she learnt the piano, music theory and composition with the best teachers of the time in Berlin and Paris. Even though she was an excellent young pianist and composed lieder and piano pieces, neither her father or, later, her brother supported her ambition to become a musician. While Felix was able to round off his education with extensive travel and opportunities to hone his art by conducting or performing as a pianist, Fanny was confronted with the limitations imposed by her social standing. From the time she turned 14, her father urged her to concentrate on her future role as a mother and wife. Giving public concerts and having her compositions published were not acceptable activities for women in the bourgeois, Protestant circle to which she belonged. Fanny Mendelssohn's talent remained largely unknown to her contemporaries throughout her life.
In the early 1820s, the Mendelssohns organised Sunday concerts, known as Sonntagsmusiken, in their Berlin home for a small circle of friends and acquaintances. After Fanny's marriage to Wilhelm Hensel, she continued to hold the concerts in her home.They were the only opportunity for Fanny to perform for an audience. She conducted about 20 choir singers and the Hofkapelle court orchestra in oratorios and opera excerpts. She also played chamber music and performed works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, her brother Felix Mendelssohn and some of her own compositions. Over time, the Sonntagsmusiken drew Berlin's leading cultural figures to the gathering: regular visitors included the Humboldt brothers, Franz Liszt, Clara Wieck-Schumann, Johanna Kinkel and Heinrich Heine.
In 1839, Fanny Mendelssohn spent a year in Rome with her husband. The time she spent in Italy was one of the happiest years of her life: the many musicians she mixed with there were highly appreciative of her talents as a composer and performer.
It was only towards the end of her life that Fanny braved her brother's ban on publishing her works. In one year, she published the lieder, the piano pieces and the vocal works for choir, before dying of a stroke during a rehearsal for a Sonntagsmusik. Her husband continued to publish her works after her death. However it was only in 1987 that Furore Verlag completed the catalogue with works that had remained unpublished since the mid-nineteenth century.
Six landmark dates in the life of Fanny Mendelssohn:
• 1820: the Mendelssohns began organising the Sonntagsmusiken, which Fanny would keep up until the end of her life
• 1827 and 1830: published five lieder and a duet for voice and piano under the name of her brother Felix, in his collection of Liederheften Op. 8 and 9
• 1829: married Wilhelm Hensel
• 1839-40: stayed in Rome
• 1846: published her Opuses 1 to 7
• 1850: her husband had some of her works published
Six key works by Fanny Mendelssohn:
• Das Jahr, piano cycle
• Piano Trio, op. post. 2
• Overture for Orchestra
• Oratorio: Musik fuer die Toten der Cholera-Epidemie
• Hero und Leander for Soprano, Piano and Orchestra