Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy was a German composer and pianist of the early Romantic era. (Fanny Hensel after her marriage. She was a gifted composer in her own right but lived under the shadow of her famous brother Felix. She was born on the 14th November 1805 in Hamburg, Germany and died in Berlin on 14th May 1847 aged 41. 

Major Works

“Easter Sonata” (1829) 
Notturno in G minor (1838)
“Bergeslust” (1847)

Biography Timeline

Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born on 14th November 1805 in Hamburg, Germany. She was one of four siblings and the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn. Her father was Abraham, the son of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Her mother was Lea, nee Salomon, the granddaughter of the banker Daniel Itzig. Her mother taught her children the piano and it is thought that she herself learned the art from Johann Kimberger a student of Johann Sebastian Bach. Felix felt that Fanny was the better player and always asked her advice during childhood. After a brief episode in Paris studying with the pianist Marie Bigot Fanny and Felix receive lessons in piano from Ludwig Berger and composition from Carl Friedrich Zelter.

1816: The Mendelssohn children are baptised as Christians. Zelter writing to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that Fanny was the more talented pianist.

1819: At her father’s birthday party aged fourteen she plays all 24 preludes from Bach’s “The Well Tempered Clavier” from memory in their home. Zelter begins to teach the siblings composition and Fanny begins writing her own piano compositions.

1820: In October she and Felix join the Sing-Akademie in Berlin which is also run by Zelter. Fanny’s music is played alongside her brothers at the Sunday series held in their home called Sonntagskonzerte even so her father thought Felix would become a professional composer but for Fanny it could only be an “ornament “due to her social class and sex.

1821: Mendelssohn, still only 16, begins her courtship with the artist Wilhelm Hensel. 

1822: A set of six of her songs are published under Felix’s name in his two sets of “Twelve Songs”. She writes a piano quartet with the help of Zelter. Queen Victoria meets Felix Mendelssohn in London at Buckingham Palace and tells him her favourite song by him is “Italien” and as she is about to sing it he has to confess that it was actually written by his sister.

1826: Felix arranges with Fanny for three of her songs each to be published under his name in his opus 8 and 9 collections.

1828: She composes her “Easter Sonata” which remains unpublished in her lifetime. A lot of her work is to remain in manuscript form only.

1829: She finally marries Wilhelm Hensel who is now painter to the Prussian court. He is supportive of her compositional work and, unusually for the time, is in favour of her publishing in her own name. Her father writes to his children to adopt the surname Bartholdy instead of Mendelssohn as a clear break from his Jewish traditions. Fanny is particularly hostile to the name and Felix is not overly keen.

1830: She gives birth to the couples only child, Sebastian. John Thomson, who had met her in Berlin during the previous year, writes in praise of a number of her songs in “The Harmonicon” a journal published in London.

1831: She writes a cantata called “Lobgesang” (Song of Praise) for her sons first birthday. She also writes “Hiob” (Job) and a large scale oratorio “Horet zu, Merket auf (Listen and Take Note).

1832: She suffers a miscarriage.

1835: She finishes her string quartet but confesses to Felix that the Lieder format actually suits her the best.

1837: She suffers another miscarriage.

1838: She performs her public debut (one of only three public outings) playing the piano in Felix’s Piano Concerto No 1. She travels widely in Italy with her husband and Sebastian and spends some time with the musicians who have won the Prix de Rome, including Charles Gounod who praises her work. She writes Notturno in G minor.

1840: Both Fanny and Felix plan an opera on the “Nibelunglied”, predating Richard Wagner, but it never materialises.

1841: She composes “Das Jahr “(The Year) which is a cycle of piano pieces about the various months of the year.  

1842: Her mother dies and she takes over organising the Mendelssohn family home in Berlin and arranging local concerts.

1846: Two Berlin publishers ask to publish some of her works and for the first time she does not consult Felix but agrees straight away. The songs are known as her Opus No 1 by Fanny Hensel. (born Mendelssohn-Bartholdy).

1847: She meets up with Clara Schumann several times during the years and they become firm friends. She works on her Piano Trio opus 11. Clara originally intended to dedicate her Piano Trio opus 17, to Fanny.

Fanny Mendelssohn died suddenly of a stroke on 14th May 1847 in Berlin, Germany whilst she was rehearsing one of Felix’s cantatas “The First Walpurgis Nacht”. She was buried next to her parents in the Dreifaltigkeit Cemetery in Berlin.

Further Information

List of compositions by Fanny Mendelssohn.

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