Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn: Music as a Profession and an Ornament

Some people are forever linked in history to their siblings.

In most cases, we bother to learn little or nothing about a historic person’s siblings. George Washington had a brother Lawrence who played a significant role in shaping his life. Lawrence, however, generally, gets lost in the history books. I doubt, however, that few people will ever read about Vincent van Gogh without also reading about his brother Theo. The same is true for Wilbur and Orville Wright, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kennedy and his brother Bobby. It’s probably not even possible to learn about one of the Marx Brothers without learning about the other four.

Some siblings are even linked in death. Theo van Gogh died six months after Vincent and is buried next to him at Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Bobby Kennedy died less than five years after his brother and is buried close to him at Arlington cemetery.

And any list of siblings connected by history would be incomplete without including Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Every classical music lover knows about Felix Mendelssohn. More than 160 years after his death his music remains a standard component of the classical repertoire. When hearing Mendelssohn's music we can’t help but want to know something about the man who composed it, and when we examine his life we inevitably learn about Fanny, the sister who shared his talents but not his opportunities.

Fanny was four years older than Felix, born in 1805 as the first child of well-to-do Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany. Much was expected of children born into the Mendelssohn family. Fanny’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a respected philosopher. Her father Abraham was a well-to-do banker, and her mother Lea was a highly educated taskmaster, a woman determined to give her children the best education possible.

The Mendelssohns were an intellectual and ambitious family, unwilling to let anything hold them back. In 1811 they moved to Berlin, a city with more opportunities than provincial Hamburg. By the early 1820s the entire family had converted to Lutheranism and changed their name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Abraham and Lea did not want the prejudice and discrimination against Jews affecting their children.

When Fanny was born her mother proclaimed she had “Bach-fugue fingers” and begin giving her piano lessons at age six. After the family moved to Berlin, Fanny took lessons with a master pianist named Ludwig Berger. It was clear to anyone who met Fanny that she was a prodigy.

Felix also began taking piano lessons at age six. Like Fanny, he was a musical prodigy and also studied with Ludwig Berger. At age ten he learned to write counterpoint from Carl Zelter, as did his sister. Both Fanny and Felix began composing when they were children and were both more advanced than Mozart at a comparable age.

Everything changed for Fanny when she turned fifteen. Her parents told her she must abandon music and prepare for marriage and motherhood. Her father said, “Music will perhaps become Felix’s profession. For you it can and must be only an ornament.” The Mendelssohns were a proper family, not about to challenge social mores regarding the role of woman.

Felix gained great fame and adulation as a composer, conductor, and pianist. His works were performed by the finest orchestras in Europe.
Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed when he was only seventeen, received rave reviews after its first performance. He was twenty when the Hebrides Overture played to rapturous applause.

He began conducting when he was nineteen and quickly gained a reputation as a virtuosic and innovative leader of orchestras and choirs. He was the first to use a baton and the first to create a repertoire of masterworks from the past. At age twenty he conducted Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion, a piece that had not been heard since Bach’s death seventy-nine years early. The performance resurrected an almost forgotten composer and created a mania for all things Bach. The great composer Hector Berlioz said, “There is but one God — Bach — and Mendelssohn is his prophet.”

At age twenty-six Felix became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the most prestigious conducting jobs of the time. He soon turned the Gewandhuas into the best orchestra in the world. When he was thirty-four he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. He was, quite simply, one of the most successful and well-known musicians of his time.

Fanny, on the other hand, had been denied a career in music by her parents, as well as the cult of domesticity that limited women's opportunities in European society. The fact that she was as talented as her brother made no difference. Instead of setting the musical world on fire, Fanny read about her brother's success in the newspapers. Felix traveled throughout Europe while she stayed home. Felix conducted great orchestras while she played in amateur quartets. Felix became an international superstar. She remained unknown to the general public.

At age twenty Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel. The day after her wedding Wilhelm handed her a piece of manuscript paper and asked her to return to music and begin composing again. With the support of her husband, Fanny resumed her life in music, but only as an amateur. After several miscarriages she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel in honor of her favorite composers. When she wasn't taking care of her son, she hosted musical salons and organized a small chorus. She also composed songs and wrote short pieces for piano. She would compose almost 500 pieces of music, and seven collections of songs were eventually published under her name.

Fanny nevertheless remained unknown to the public during her lifetime. European culture would simply not accept music composed by a woman. Felix secretly published several of her songs under his own name, songs that gained wide exposure and popular approval. On one of Felix’s many visits to England he met Queen Victoria who raved about the song “Italien.” Felix created a slight controversy when he confessed that his sister had written the song.

On May 14, 1847, Fanny was playing the piano with a chamber group when her hands went numb. The next day she died of a stroke. She was forty-two years old.

Felix, distraught over the loss of his sister, was too emotionally upset even to attend her funeral. Over the next few months his health deteriorated and less than six months after his sister died he was killed by a stroke. He was thirty-eight.

Today, in a graveyard outside Berlin, Fanny and Felix are buried next to each other. Felix was a composer for the ages, gaining the fame that history grants to few artists. His story, however, can never be told without also telling the story of his sister Fanny, a woman of prodigious talent who was born at the wrong time in history.

Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn Burial Site

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Larghetto from Song Without Words, Op. 8, No.3, Elzbieta Sternlicht, pianist

Felix Mendelssohn, Fantasy in F#, "Scottish Sonata," Op.28, Murray Perahia, pianist

Fingal’s Cave: Mendelssohn Creates a Mood

My students often associate pieces of classical music with old cartoons. Whether I am teaching a lesson about Rossini, Liszt, or Wagner, a student will invariably mention Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Elmer Fudd. I love those old cartoons, but if I took things too seriously, I might take exception to how the beauty and originality of some music has been lost in comic images. However, a little satire should never be able to ruin a great piece of music, and I'll therefore refer you to Listverse for the 10 Best Uses of Classical Music in Cartoons. There’s no doubt that each cartoon on the list is a gem, and you can't go wrong with the music.

Five cartoons not placed on the list (most likely due to embarrassing racial stereotypes) come from the “Inki and the Minah Bird” series from Warner Brothers. In each of the five cartoons, a myna bird strolls across the screen, periodically hopping to the music. And what is the music that accompanies that bird's stroll? It’s the Hebrides Overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn. I'd like to use the rest of this blog not to discuss old cartoons, but instead to honor Mendelssohn by discussing the Hebrides Overture.

Mendelssohn was a German composer who visited Scotland when he was twenty years old. He was so charmed by what he saw on his trip that he was inspired to compose two pieces that are now recognized as musical masterworks: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (the "Scottish” Symphony) and the Hebrides Overture. You might want to explore the "Scottish" Symphony on your own. However, if you'd like to know something about the Hebrides, just keep reading.

The Hebrides archipelago is a group of islands off the western coast of Scotland. Staffa is one of those islands, its name coming from an old Norse word for column or staff. The island is less than a mile wide and contains a series of basalt columns that surround a cave on the southeastern corner of the island. The cave is called Fingal’s Cave and is named for a mythical hero who took refuge on the island.

Hebrides Overture — also known as The Lonely Island, The Isle of Fingal, or Fingal’s Cave — is piece of program music that doesn’t tell a story about the island and its cave as much as it creates a mood. When listening to the music you should hear the murmuring of the waves, as well as the water crashing on the rocks as it ebbs back and forth. You should also sense the loneliness and the beauty of the cave. The cave has been called “the cave of music,” and the main theme for the piece came to Mendelssohn as he sat in a boat looking at the cave and listening to the water hit its walls. When asked about the "story" for the Hebrides Overture, Mendelssohn said, “It cannot be told, only played.”

I have embedded two videos below. One shows Fingal's Cave and the other shows the Beethoven Academy Orchestra performing the
Hebrides Overture. Follow the outline I have provided while listening to the orchestra and think about the majesty of the cave on Staffa Island. Listen for the constant ebb and flow of the water that leads to a climax, as if a storm had hit the island. Rest assured that all ends well with Mendelssohn providing a calm acceptance of nature’s majesty. Much more interesting than a hopping myna bird, I'd say.

A look at Staffa Island and Fingal’s Cave

Mendelssohn, Hebrides Overture (1829)
performed by Michael Dworzynski conducting the Beethoven Academy Orchestra

Follow the outline below while listening to the Beethoven Academy Orchestra playing the Hebrides Overture: (Note: The Hebrides Overture was composed in sonata form.

0:00 — Theme 1
A theme repeated over and over to recreate the murmuring of the waves at the mouth of the cave. Note how the theme is often repeated at a lower dynamic level to represent the echo from within the cave.

1:49 — Theme 2
A theme that rises and falls in pitch and dynamics to represent the waters crashing on rocks and ebbing back to the sea. Some say the theme portrays the inner tranquility of the cave in the midst of the turbulent sea.

2:46 — Closing of the Exposition
Note the change in rhythm (
3:00) that represents the fierceness of the wind and sea.

3:34 — The two themes from the exposition are developed and expanded. Note how the themes advance and retreat like water hitting the cave. Listen for the calmness (4:27) preceding the foreboding of a storm (4:52) that eventually hits the island with full fury (6:03).

6:31 — Theme 1

7:21 — Theme 2

8:38 — Coda
A closing to the piece that portrays the turbulence, as well as the majesty, of nature before fading into silence (