Fanny Mendelssohn’s Music: Making the Piano Sing

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An 1842 portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

A portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel dating to 1842. Image by Meister Raro.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) wrote 500 compositions, including 120 pieces for the piano.

Although she was gifted herself, Fanny deferred to the talents of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), whose gender allowed him to more easily excel in his career as a composer.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Complex Compositions

Fanny’s compositions were highly sophisticated works that revealed all of the traits of the Romantic era. Her work far excels her brother’s in tonal aspirations, long fluid melody lines (the part of the music that one wants to sing), and dramatic chromatic harmonies. (Harmony refers to the melody’s accompaniment).

In chromatic harmony, the accompaniment is moving in semi-tones, which are the smallest interval between two pitches as measured in Western music.

On the piano it is easy to identify the semi-tone, as this is the distance between a white key and the black key immediately next to it. It is a means of adjusting the pitch by the smallest possible interval which can be indicated in musical notation (sheet music).

There are smaller intervals than a semi-tone, often found in Eastern music, but the semi-tone harmonic progression (chromaticism) is the smallest interval that can be written down.

It is rather discordant (clashing against the norm of what the human ear tends to appreciate) and was very common in music of the Romantic era.

Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn: Lyrical Pieces

Many of Fanny’s piano compositions mirror the well-known ideals of her brother’s Songs Without Words, an eight-volume collection of short, lyrical pieces for the piano, which he composed in response to the demands of the growing popularity of the piano in many households.

The astonishing similarities between Felix’s Songs Without Words, written between 1829 and 1845, and his sister’s work, raises the question: Whose work influenced whose?

Maurice Hinson suggests the same question in At the Piano With Women Composers. Referring to two of Fanny’s piano pieces, Mélodie, Op. 4, No. 2 and Mélodie, Op. 5, No. 4, Hinson ponders the similarities between Fanny’s and Felix’s works.

Making the Instrument Sing

Playing either of Fanny’s Mélodie piano works makes me believe that the piano can really sing. That was the whole concept behind many Romantic piano works of the time, and served as the inspiration that resulted in Felix naming his eight-volume collection, Songs Without Words.

It’s not that the piano, or any other instrument for that matter, could physically “sing” like the human voice. Rather, it was creating an impression of “singing.” In today’s music, we would liken that to a “catchy” tune to which we want to “sing along,” or hum in the shower.

Fanny’s Mélodie piano works certainly make me want to sing along as I play the work and try to make the piano sing. The melody line of Fanny’s work is very expressive, very dramatic and, at times, in many ways more sombre than one would expect from a female composer of this time period.

Das Jahr – The Year

One of Fanny’s compositions is a cycle of pieces written in 1841, almost like a journal, a musical diary, of the Hensel family’s year in Rome. Das Jahr (The Year) uses her compositional style of elaborate flowing melody lines, expressive harmonies (often chromatic) and the underlying drama of emotion and sentiment. The thirteen parts of this work (the twelve months of the year plus a Postlude Chorale “Das alte Jahrvergangenist”) consummate Fanny’s ability to create a musical experience of both time and place, her style of expression so typical of the nineteenth century.

Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny and Felix had an unusual partnership with their significant musical talent – both were child prodigies. Fanny produced over five hundred compositions before her death from a stroke at age 42.

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