Fanny Mendelssohn’s voice was oppressed and then rescued, as it was believed that music should only serve as decoration for her.

To read the family’s account, you’d never know that Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s big sister, was also a composer of genius. Her own son, my great-great-grandfather Sebastian, paints a vivid picture of her in his history of the family: funny, brilliant, affectionate. But not a word about her as a musician.

In 2009, I created a film for the BBC about Felix which led me to uncover Fanny’s remarkable talents and her ongoing internal conflict between expressing herself and avoiding family discord. This internal struggle made my documentary, Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, even more captivating.

In the present day, 176 years following Fanny’s passing, significant progress has been made. Women now hold influential roles in numerous industries, granting them tangible benefits.

Drawing by Wilhelm Hensel of his wife-to-be, Fanny Mendelssohn.

Creating art or music is not a structured or systematic process. It is more akin to a child’s play, where there may be a specific goal to achieve or simply an expression of shapes and colors. The only way to approach it is to start and let the journey unfold, even if it may lead nowhere for days or weeks. It requires courage and self-assurance to believe that this seemingly aimless and personal activity holds significance. This confidence stems from the belief that one is an artist.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel faced this challenge. The traditional image of a talented artist did not match her own appearance or personality. Fanny desired the same things as many others: a fulfilling marriage, a joyful family with kids, and to avoid disappointing her parents.

This was the issue at hand. The Mendelssohns, who had gained wealth through banking and changed their religion from Judaism to Christianity, were attempting to establish themselves as part of the elite society in Berlin. Any mistake would be noticed and met with consequences. Despite Fanny’s musical talent being on par with her brother’s, her father Abraham abruptly terminated her musical training at the age of 14 and wrote to her: “Music may become his career, but for you it can only ever be a means of decoration, never the core of your existence and actions.”

Fanny retained the ability to create and present musical pieces, although restricted to doing so in private. Despite this limitation, her immense talent was evident in all aspects of her life, causing some inconvenience.

Her life was a continuous struggle to find equilibrium between these opposing forces. When a cholera outbreak hit Europe soon after she gave birth to her first child, 26-year-old Fanny took on the role of family nurse. Without access to antibiotics or a structured healthcare system, she cared for her family during the crisis. To commemorate their survival, she composed a Cholera Cantata, a 40-minute piece featuring complex four-part singing accompanied by an organ. This was one of three cantatas she wrote that year, in between caring for her family, hosting students who came to learn from her husband Wilhelm (an artist), and managing the 240 intricately embroidered napkins necessary for a well-run household.

However, Felix did not enjoy the cantatas and expressed to her that she lacked talent in choral composition. As a result, she never wrote another one.

Fanny had a curse; despite her obvious talent, she lacked confidence in herself without a role model. She only trusted one person’s judgment – her little brother Felix, who had high standards and evident talent. If he approved, she was overjoyed, but if he didn’t, she would give up right away. As a result, her life was filled with one-time achievements, such as one string quartet and one set of cantatas.

Despite the obstacles she faced, Fanny remained determined. One of the qualities I admire about Fanny is that she refused to be a rebellious troublemaker or a pitiful victim. Even when she boldly defied Felix and released her work, she sincerely reassured him that she was not a “femme libre” and had no intention of causing a scandal. Her lack of a promising career did not discourage her from pursuing her passion for composing. When her parents disapproved of her relationship with a struggling artist, she patiently waited for him to secure a stable job as the King’s painter. In this fairytale, Wilhelm is the hero who, despite having no musical talent and lacking the Mendelssohns’ sharp wit, insisted on marrying Fanny only if she continued to compose. We have him to thank for all the music that came after.

Reworded: One of the main difficulties faced in making the film was capturing the feeling of creating music in a time without recorded audio. During Fanny’s era, the only option to hear a new symphony or concerto was to attend a live performance in a concert hall. While there were arrangements for one or two pianos available, they were unable to fully convey the power of works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Felix journeyed through Europe, immersing himself in the latest sounds and connecting with renowned artists. Meanwhile, Fanny was confined to her home, caring for her spouse and infant. Determined to experience music despite her limitations, she transformed her lavish home into a venue for concerts and became an impresario. Each year, she curated a series of performances, attracting top musicians from across Europe. However, even in this role, Fanny seldom featured her own compositions. The spotlight was often on male artists, including her brother.

Isata Kanneh-Mason discusses the Easter sonata in Hayman’s film.

The strength and ingenuity of Fanny is reflected in the women who, starting from the late 1970s, began to uncover information about her. Marcia Citron made a trip from the US to the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, where Fanny’s papers were stored without being organized or seen. However, she was met with Dr Rudolf Elvers, the guardian of the archive, who claimed that Fanny was just a regular housewife. Later in the 1990s, Renate Hellwig-Unruh also made efforts to access the Berlin archive. When Dr Elvers retired, Renate was able to create the first complete catalog of Fanny’s works, which surprised everyone with its total of over 450 pieces.

Angela Mace was raised in a strict Christian cult in the United States, where she was expected to follow in the footsteps of Fanny and devote her life to raising a family. However, Angela had different aspirations. She attended university and received scholarships to cover her tuition. During a music seminar in her postgraduate studies, she became captivated by the story and music of a woman who spoke to her across time. Angela’s discovery of the missing Easter Sonata and her ten-year pursuit to prove that Fanny was its true composer provided me with the contemporary element I needed to begin the movie.

Isata Kanneh-Mason, a determined woman who lacked role models but shared a celebrated younger brother with Fanny, was an ideal musician to teach us the Sonata. Through her experiences with it, she demonstrated the undeniable talent of Fanny.

Many people have expressed that Fanny’s story resonates with them in some way. Despite our progress, the constant struggle of feeling worthy of support, recognition, and freedom to create is still all too familiar. It’s not just a fight against external challenges, but also against our own inner doubts. We must remember that we have the right to play.


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