A piano trio sings a hymn of praise to the musical genius of Fanny
The popular telling of musical history links the title ‘Songs Without Words’ inextricably to composer Felix Mendelssohn. His eight volumes of short, lyrical pieces composed between 1829-45 were popular amongst middle-class families across Europe, for whom piano ownership was becoming the norm. But Mendelssohn biographies suggest that this title connects just as closely with Felix’s older sister, Fanny. The descriptor may have originated in a game that Felix and Fanny played as children, where they attempted to add lyrics to piano pieces. Fanny herself also composed lyrical piano works and called these pieces ‘Lieder for the Piano’- a title with identical connotations to Felix’s better-known works. Furthermore, composer Charles Gounod claimed in his memoirs that some of Felix’s ‘Songs Without Words’ were in fact composed by Fanny but published under Felix’s name.
My ‘Songs Without Words’ are a set of three short pieces for Piano Trio, all composed in an unapologetically melodic and lyrical style. I have come to think of the process of composing these pieces as ‘Historically Informed Composition’- perhaps this is a little silly, as we composers never operate in a vacuum devoid of historical influence. Certainly though, in composing ‘Songs Without Words’ I was more conscious than usual in my choice of influences, and deliberate in my use of quotation. The references to specific chamber works by Fanny and Felix creates a set which, I hope, tell a little of the life, music and relationship between these two talented composers.
Fanny Mendelssohn (b. 1805) and Felix Mendelssohn (b. 1809) were prodigiously talented musicians and composers, both benefitting from extensive musical training from a young age. Their father, Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, was generous in his support for his children’s musical education, but particular in how he saw the paths of the talented brother and sister diverging in the future. Gifts brought home following a business trip to Paris revealed his double-standard: Felix received writing implements to enable him to compose his first opera, while fourteen-year-old Fanny received a bejewelled necklace.
In 1820, Abraham wrote in a letter to Fanny:
“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, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.”
In the original German, Abraham refers to the ‘zierde’ (ornament) that music might be for Fanny, alongside the ‘grundbass’ (root) that it might become for her brother. Felix went on to be celebrated throughout Europe as a composer, conductor and performer; Fanny’s music making was confined to the private domestic sphere. Felix had his first composition published at aged 13; Fanny contemplated publishing for many years before finally doing so at the age of 40. Felix is considered one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era; Fanny’s music remained in obscurity until the later part of the 20th Century.
Ornamental is characterised by two musical elements- a repeated bass line or ‘ground bass’, and a deceptively simple but highly ornamented melodic fragment. The work presents a solid structural foundation but is intended to be heard and appreciated for its attractive qualities. It is both serious and decorative; music planned with ‘masculine’ intention but betraying a ‘feminine’ aesthetic; the work of a professional composer, and the creative outpourings of a wife and a mother, playing her piano at home.
Throughout their lifetime, Fanny was Felix’s most trusted musical advisor, and he hers. The siblings maintained a ritual of sharing scores, offering suggestions, and giving critical feedback to one another about their compositions. In 1822, Fanny wrote:
“He (Felix) never commits an idea to paper without my having examined it first. Thus, for example, I knew his operas by heart before even one note was written down.”
In a similar vein, Felix recognised the uncanny similarities between some of his and Fanny’s works, demonstrating that their shared upbringing and continued closeness resulted in similar musical approaches:
“I received your Prelude No. 6 in B flat major to my Fugue in B flat, for it really is the same inside and out… it is nice that our thoughts remain so close to one another.”
Felix’s Piano Trio of 1839 and Fanny’s Piano Trio of 1846 epitomise the compositional style of each composer and are considered among their most popular chamber works. Both trios are in the key of D minor, and demonstrate a deft handling of form, harmony and melodic variation. Close analysis reveals subtle and not-so-subtle similarities between the two works, in particular the second movement Adagios. Most likely because Fanny’s Trio was composed after Felix’s (but also because she remains the lesser known composer,) it has been suggested that Fanny’s work benefited from the ‘borrowing’ of Felix’s style. This claim has been laid not only in regard to the Trio, but to other works exhibiting similarities in approach. Given the shared history of upbringing and their ongoing close relationship, it is dismissive of both composers to suggest one was simply imitating the other. Rather, it is fair to expect similarities in style, the borrowing of ideas and a cohesiveness in musical character.
Lied is immersed in the style and form of the slow second movements from both Fanny and Felix’s D minor Trios, and borrows its title from the unexpected third movement of Fanny’s Trio. In the same way that Fanny reflects Felix and Felix reflects Fanny, I aimed to reflect both. The result is a work that uses the ‘masculine’ (ie. challenging and ambitious) musical device of counterpoint and subversion of expected forms within the construct of the ‘feminine’ (ie. pleasing and melodious) slow middle movement. Contained within are veiled references to both composer’s works, including a hidden quote from Fanny’s Trio, for no other reason than of the two pieces, hers is my favourite.
For much of her adult life, Fanny sought approval from her brother to publish her music. She desired objective critical appraisal from those outside her immediate circle; without publishing, her music could not be heard beyond the audiences of the Sonntagsmusiken, the Sunday musical events in which Fanny acted as composer, pianist, conductor and curator for friends and family of the Mendelssohns. For years, she operated in this private and domestic musical vacuum, highly regarded by her brother, her family, and those who attended her concerts, but unheard in the wider public sphere.
While there is no doubt that Felix held Fanny in high musical esteem, it is clear is that his refusal to support her in her desire to publish hindered her development as a composer. Felix, like their father Abraham, saw Fanny’s role firmly as wife and mother, bound by domesticity and achieving joy and satisfaction in her ‘primary occupation’ of running her household. He expressed his concern that by stepping into the public life of a composer, Fanny would be met with harsh judgement and criticism. Felix even went so far as to suggest to their mother Lea that Fanny had ‘neither enthusiasm nor calling for authorship’, a statement that suggests his own interpretation of what was ‘right’ for her to do prevented him from hearing Fanny’s heartfelt desire to publish. Felix’s intention may have been to protect her, but the result was that Fanny withheld from publishing for many years, and experienced constant waves of doubt and lacked self-belief in her abilities as a composer.
In 1846 at the age of 40, Fanny stepped out without her brother’s blessing and published her music. Her bravery resulted in favourable reviews and a year of ‘creative explosion’, which included the composition of her Piano Trio. The burst of creative energy came to a devastating halt when, in May of 1847, Fanny suffered a sudden stroke and died. Felix, devastated at the loss of his dearly beloved sister, also died of a stroke not six months later.
The sombre and melancholic mood of Swansong is a reflection on aspects of loss in the story of Fanny and Felix- the struggle to be heard and understood, the disappointment of unfulfilled potential, and the sorrow felt at the death of a sibling. Constructed in a 3-verse song form, the melody contains harmonic, melodic and rhythmic allusions to three musical sources: Fanny’s songs ‘Schwanenlied’ and ‘Bergeslust’, and Felix’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor. Of the songs, ‘Schwanenlied’ (Swansong) is No. 1 in Fanny’s Op. 1, her first published collection of songs. ‘Bergeslust’ (Mountain Rapture) is Fanny’s final composition, composed the day before she died. Following Fanny’s death, perhaps to make amends for his earlier reservations, Felix arranged for some of Fanny’s works to receive posthumous publication; this is how ‘Bergeslust’ made its way into the Op. 10 ‘Funf Lieder’. Felix composed his Sixth String Quartet in response to the news of Fanny’s death; Swansong makes use of the chromatic bass line and rising major 6th motif from the string quartet’s heart-breaking 3rd movement.
'Songs Without Words' was commissioned by the ABC Fresh Start Commission (2020) for the Benaud Trio. The recording is available on all major streaming platforms.
It is also the opening tracks on 'Women of Note: Volume 3' released by ABC Classic
Beer, A 2016, Sounds and Sweets Airs, Oneworld Publications, London.
Goldsworthy, A 2002, ‘Fanny Hensel and Virtuosity’, DMA thesis, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Larry Todd, R 2009, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, Oxford University Press, New York.