Out of the Shadows: A Showcase of Works by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, is finally receiving attention that is well overdue. Because cultural restraints prevented her from composing professionally or achieving public status in her day, Hensel (1805-47) was overshadowed by her younger brother’s popularity. However, recent research has revealed her to have been highly intelligent and cultured, as well as a brilliant pianist and accomplished composer in her own right. Despite the previous neglect, her life and work are now intriguing scholars and performers alike, in the United States and abroad. This fall, Juilliard will honor Hensel in a three-concert chamber music series devoted to her music, featuring performances by Juilliard doctoral students.


Much of the new interest in Hensel can be attributed to the work of R. Larry Todd, the arts and sciences professor of music at Duke University and author of Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn and Mendelssohn: A Life in Music. Todd, a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the National Humanities Center, presented a fascinating and illuminating doctoral forum on Hensel last season at Juilliard, and is returning to the School to curate the concert series this fall. Jane Gottlieb, Juilliard’s vice president for library and information resources and Doctoral Governance Committee chair, calls Todd “the world’s foremost expert on the Mendelssohns.” In a recent e-mail message, she said, “We’re thrilled to have him curate this mini-festival, which will showcase performances by Juilliard’s C.V. Starr doctoral fellows.”

In an e-mail interview with The Journal, Todd explained that the pieces chosen for the concert series are both representative of Hensel’s overall style and stand out as her best work. He said that the selections “should enable the attentive listener to discern elements of her style that at once overlap with the ‘Mendelssohnian’ style we already know but also begin to separate from that style as she shaped her own voice.” 

Hensel’s oeuvre includes more than 450 works, many of which remained unknown until the late 20th century. Predominantly a miniaturist, she also occasionally wrote in larger forms, including Bach-style cantatas, choral works, a string quartet, and several piano sonatas. According to Todd, the concert series will reflect this variety, exemplifying her “natural inclination toward lyricism” and “rare talent as a songwriter,” as well as offering a mix of instrumental and vocal works, ranging from short piano pieces and lieder to major chamber pieces and a substantial piano cycle.

The festival opens on September 30 with a selection of lieder, solo piano pieces, and piano duets. The second half of the opening concert will feature Hensel’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, performed by the Avenue 9 Piano Trio. The composer’s last major work, the piano trio was finished only weeks before her death in May 1847. In Todd’s opinion, it displays “an intimate knowledge of her brother’s piano trios. Attentive listeners will also detect in the third movement a clear allusion to Obadiah’s ‘If with all your hearts’ aria from Elijah.” However, despite the references to Felix’s compositions, Todd maintains that all of Hensel’s chamber works “contain strong original music.” In fact, Todd noted, American composer “George Chadwick thought that the Piano Trio was the equal of Mendelssohn’s two piano trios, Op. 49 and Op. 66.”

The performance on October 1 will showcase Hensel’s 1934 String Quartet in E-flat Major, performed by the Attacca Quartet, as well as several lieder and solo piano works. The composition of the quartet denotes one of Hensel’s first attempts to break away from writing miniatures. According to Todd, “not surprisingly, it reveals some allusions to her brother’s chamber music, most notably his String Quartet, Op. 12, but there is too a coming to terms with the quartets of Beethoven, in particular the ‘Harp’ Quartet, Op. 74.” He added, “Hensel experiments quite freely with sonata form in the first movement, and she is freer in her harmonic design than her brother. Several passages in the quartet are tonally ambiguous, as they seem to avoid clear, irrefutable statements of the tonic key.” Hensel’s quartet, which remained in manuscript until the 1980s, is one of very few by 19th-century women composers.

For the final concert in the series, on October 2, pianist Liza Stepanova will perform Das Jahr: 12 Charakterstücke für das Forte-Piano, a 12-movement cycle depicting the months of the year. Though Hensel never published the complete work, Todd explained, she did “write out a second full autograph score, to which were appended literary aphorisms drawn from Goethe, Eichendorff, and other poets, and drawings by her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, a portraitist and painter at the Prussian court,” providing visual, literary, and musical levels for the work. Appropriately, her husband’s illustrations will be projected during the performance.

Musically, Todd described Das Jahr as “hauntingly beautiful,” displaying “a stylistic blend of various elements—severe chromaticism and some Bachian counterpoint, brilliant flashes of virtuosity, and an intense, soulful lyricism.” Admitting that it is one of his favorite of Hensel’s works, he also labels it as a “major, though regrettably still little-known, piano cycle of the 19th century that dwarfs the piano music of her famous brother (excepting the Variations Sérieuses), and at times is reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s great cycles.” 

In addition to the artists already mentioned, other featured performers throughout the concert series include pianists Jennifer Chu, Sharon Bjorndal Lavery, Hyo-Kyung Nam, Edward Neeman, and Erika Switzer, and vocalists Daniel Curran, Nathalie Mittelbach, Drew Santini, and Golda Schultz.

Todd hopes to work directly with the performers, as he finds it “fascinating to observe musicians’ responses to Hensel’s music as they get to know it and shape their performances.” With the presence of and contributions by Todd, the Hensel series should prove to be a true collaborative event, a fusion of scholarship and performance. 

The festival, representing the first Fanny Hensel cycle in modern times, will also be a veritable, if belated, honoring of a previously overlooked but important musical figure. As Todd affirmed, “There is the spark of genius in this music, marking her as a composer we should now recognize and celebrate.”

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