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Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
Mendelssohn
by Walter Rowlands


Like Mozart, the composer of the "Songs without Words" had a sister, a few years older than himself, who was possessed of great musical talent.

Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, was born in 1805. In 1829 she became the wife of Wilhelm Hensel, a noted historical and portrait painter. Probably the most valuable and interesting of his works is the series of portraits of all the celebrities who, from time to time, were the guests of the Mendelssohn family. They number more than a thousand drawings, and include, besides likenesses of poets, painters, and philosophers, portraits of many people famous in the annals of music, - Weber, Paganini, Ernst, Hiller, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Gounod, Clara Novello, Lablache, and Grisi.

Rockstro tells the story of Fanny Mendelssohn's early death in the following words:

"On Friday afternoon, the 14th of May, 1847, Madame Hensel, the beloved sister Fanny, to whom, from earliest infancy, Felix, the child, the boy, the man, had committed every secret of his beautiful art life; the kindred spirit, with whom he had shared his every dream before his first attempt to translate it into sound; the faithful friend who had been more to him than any other member of the happy circle in the Leipziger Strasse, of which, from first to last, she was the very life and soul, - Fanny Hensel, the sister, the artist, the poet, while conducting a rehearsal of the music for the next bright Sunday gathering, was suddenly seized with paralysis; suffered her hands to fall powerless from the piano at which she had so often presided; and, an hour before midnight, was called away to join the beloved parents whose death had been as sudden and painless as her own. She had hoped and prayed that she, too, might pass away as they had done, and her prayer was granted; to her exceeding gain, but to the endless grief of the brother who had loved her as himself. On Sunday morning, in place of the piano, a coffin, covered with flowers, stood in the well-known hall in the Garden House. And the life, of which that Garden House had so long been the cherished home, became henceforth a memory of the past."

An English lady, Mrs. Florence Fenwick Miller, known not only as a writer, but as an ardent advocate of woman suffrage, has in one of her books written a chapter which she entitles "A Genius Wasted - Fanny Mendelssohn." She says: "One of the saddest instances with which the world has ever become acquainted, of gifts repressed and faculties wasted because of the sex of their possessor, is that of Fanny Mendelssohn, the sister of the famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn. With natural powers apparently fully as great as her brother's, Fanny was not, indeed, denied all opportunity of cultivating them, but was effectually prevented from utilising them, and, therefore, from fully developing her genius or from displaying its force."

These two Jewish children were members of a family in which both intellect, in its widest meaning, and musical talent, specifically, were hereditary. Their mother began to teach music both to the boy and the girl in their early years. Fanny, who was five years older than her brother, was naturally more advanced than he; and when the two children were allowed to show off their powers as pianists, it was Fanny who always won the most applause. They passed from their mother's elementary tuition to that of superior teachers, L. Berger and afterward Zeiter, and the former of these indicated Fanny as being, in his opinion, the future great musician.

But a father and mother with a maiden of genius on their hands were like a hen whose duckling takes to the water. The difference of the training of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, as distinguished from their musical education, is effectually indicated by the following letter from their father to Fanny, written when she was fourteen years old. After referring in terms of satisfaction to the compositions of both his son and daughter, Abraham Mendelssohn proceeded to say to the latter of his two gifted children:

"What you wrote to me about your musical occupations, with reference to and in comparison with Felix, was both rightly thought and expressed. Music will, perhaps, become his profession (Felix was at this time only nine years old. Fanny was fourteen), whilst for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and doing. We may, therefore, pardon him some ambition and desire to be acknowledged in a pursuit which appears to him important, while it does you credit that you have always shown yourself good and sensible in these matters; and your very joy at the praise he earns proves that you might, in his place, have merited equal approval. Remain true to these sentiments and to this line of conduct; they are feminine, and only what is truly feminine is an ornament to your sex."

Ten more precious years of youth, the years of training and of hope, passed by; the different ideal was persistently forced by the parents upon the two, although Fanny, more fortunate than many girls, was, nevertheless, allowed to study her art as well as she could in intervals of housekeeping. On her twenty-third birthday, her father again felt it necessary to check his gifted daughter in her pursuit of her art. He wrote her a letter in which he praised her conduct in the household.

"However," he added, "you must still improve. You must become still more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a woman, - I mean the state of a housewife. Women have a difficult task; the constant occupation with apparent trifles, the interception of each drop of rain, that it may not evaporate, but be conducted into the right channel, the unremitting attention to every detail, - all these are the weighty duties of a woman."

The time came, at length, for Fanny Mendelssohn to love, - that crisis came which stimulates a man in his work, and nerves him to fresh efforts to make himself successful, that he may be worthy and able to establish a home. But to a woman this brings, only too often, yet another heavy barrier in the way of success in any art or occupation. So it was to Fanny Mendelssohn.

"Hensel was at first dreadfully jealous ... even of Fanny's art.... Only her letters have been preserved. With characteristic energy she refuses to sacrifice her brother to the jealousy with which Hensel, in the beginning, regards her love for him, but she consents to give up her friends, and even her music.... She never, in her thoughts, loses sight of that letter of her father's, in which he calls the vocation of a housewife the only true aim and study of a young woman, and in thinking of the man of her choice she earnestly devotes herself to this aim."

What reprobation and what just indignation would be showered upon a woman who should try to make the man of her choice give up his art, to attend to her private comforts!

Although Fanny's good father and mother, yielding to the prejudices of their day, had struggled to make housekeeping her main interest, and music only her recreation, yet they had not denied her musical genius a complete education. Fanny was not only taught to play the piano in her childhood, in company with Felix, but she was also allowed to receive lessons in thorough bass and the theory of composition. She was thus rendered capable of the expression of her musical talents; and in between her household duties, after, as well as before she became a wife and mother, she often found time to compose. Much of what she wrote was of so high a character that her brother Felix felt no hesitation in putting it forth to the world as his own composition! It is, apparently, impossible to discover which, amongst the works published as those of Mendelssohn, were really those of his sister; but references now and again occur in his private letters to the fact, which thereby becomes incontrovertible, that he has claimed before the public compositions which are hers exclusively. The most famous of such passages is one that has became widely known in consequence of its quotation in Sir Theodore Martin's "Life of the Prince Consort." Mendelssohn is telling of his visit to the queen, at Buckingham Palace, in 1842.

"The queen said she was very fond of singing my published songs. 'You should sing one to him,' said Prince Albert, and after a little begging she said she would. And what did she choose? 'Schöner und schöner schmuckt sich;' sang it quite charmingly, in strict time and tune, and with very good execution. Then I was obliged to confess that Fanny had written that song (which I found very hard, but pride must have a fall), and to beg her to sing one of my own also."

As her father had kept her from appearing before the public when she was young, so her brother strenuously opposed her wish to publish her work in her maturity. In the spring of 1837, Fanny, in defiance of him, did issue one song with her own name to it. It had a great success, and Felix himself graciously wrote to her after it had been performed at a concert; "I thank you, in the name of the public, for publishing it against my wish." Fanny's husband urged her to follow up this success by issuing more of her works. "Her mother was of the same opinion, and begged Felix to persuade Fanny to publish. The success had not altered Felix's views, however, and he declined to persuade his sister; and Fanny, who had herself no desire to appear in print, readily gave up the idea."

Felix's influence sufficed to debar Fanny from all further attempt to obtain recognition, after that one song, until the year 1846, when she was forty-one years old. Then the persuasions of another musical friend led her to publish a small selection of her best work. "Felix had not altered his views, and it went against his wishes when he heard that she had made up her mind to publish. Some time passed before he wrote on the subject at all, but on August 14th the following entry appears in her diary: 'At last Felix has written, and given me his professional blessing in the kindest manner. I know that he is not satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it.'"

This little volume, too, was warmly received. Encouraged by the success of her published work, - delayed till so sadly late in life, - tasting the stimulating elixir of appreciation, and knowing the fascinating encouragement of public applause, she now began composition on a larger scale than anything she had before attempted. "I am working a good deal," she wrote, "and feel that I get on, - a consciousness which, added to the glorious weather, gives me a feeling of content and happiness such as I have, perhaps, never before experienced."

Alas! it came too late. In the spring of the next year, Fanny Mendelssohn died, aged forty-two. Her grand playing, "which made people afraid to perform in her presence," went down with her into the silence of her grave; and the musical genius and originality which should have left a lasting mark in the world faded, too, leaving but a few small tokens of what might have been.

The "Songs without Words" are more closely associated with Mendelssohn than any other of his works. The composer considered that music is more definite than words, and these lovely songs had as exact an intention as those which were written to accompany poetry. It was in a letter of Fanny Mendelssohn's, dated December 8, 1828, that their title first appeared, and they are referred to as if Mendelssohn had but lately begun to write them. On the day after his arrival in London, April 24, 1832, he played the first six to Moscheles. The earliest one is No. 2, of Book 2, which Felix sent to his sister Fanny in 1830. "In a Gondola," the last song in the first book, is said to be the earliest of the six, in date. A few only were given titles by the composer. Six books, each containing six songs, were published during his life, and the seventh and eighth after his early death.



We reproduce the charming picture by a German painter, which, entitled "Song without Words," is said to represent the young Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny seated at the piano, side by side. Poetzelberger's other works, which he has named "Con Amore," "Old Songs," and "Trifling," are also distinguished by their graceful sentiment.

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