Thursday, 5 June 2014

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: Daughter, Sister and Musician

Felix Mendelssohn was musically gifted. So was his sister Fanny. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was described as a "superb pianist" and an "exceptionally fine composer". Goethe was an admirer of her music and in a letter to Felix referred to her as "your equally gifted sister". Nevertheless, of her 400 works, only few compositions were published. And until recently, historians were rather interested in her as a source to find information for their biographical studies on her brother.

Her father, Abraham Mendelssohn, believed that "the only vocation for a respectable young woman was that of a housewife" but promoted Fanny's musical talent. When they were very young both Fanny and Felix received piano instruction and studied theory and composition. Later, her father made it clear to her on every occasion that as a woman she could not aspire a similar goal as her brother. On her 23rd birthday, her father wrote: "You must become more steady and collected, and prepare earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman--I mean that of a housewife. Women have a difficult task; the unremitting attention to every detail, the appreciation of every moment for some benefit or other--all these and more are the weighty duties of a woman."

Shortly before her marriage she wrote: "I am composing no more songs, at least not by modern poets I know personally. . . . I now comprehend what I've always heard and what the truth-speaking Jean Paul has also said: Art is not for women, only for girls; on the threshold of my new life I take leave of this plaything."  Fanny could not stop making music and continued. Her husband encouraged her while her brother Felix agreed with the father on women's roles. Felix published six of her songs under his own name. They were all greeted by critics.

- Gates, E. (2007) Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A Life of Music within Domestic Limits. The Kapralova Society Journal, 5(2), 1-15
- photos (by Ralph Crane) via and (by Gordon Parks) via
»Ein Dilettant ist schon ein schreckliches Geschöpf, ein weiblicher Autor ein noch schrecklicheres, wenn aber beides sich in einer Person vereinigt, wird natürlich das allerschrecklichste Wesen daraus.« Fanny Mendelssohn (via)
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Update March 2017:
"Easter Sonata", a "masculine, violent, ambitious" sonata performed under Fanny Mendelssohn's name in honour of International Women's Day bringing her out of her brother's shadow after 188 years (via).


  1. Replies
    1. Abbie Winterburn6 June 2014 at 12:44

      Thanks for sharing, Laura!

  2. Many, many thanks for sharing this story!

    And the girls from Salut Salon are incredible!

  3. Frans Gunnarsson6 June 2014 at 12:48

    Salut Salon! Wow!

  4. Derek, Abbie, Karen, Kenneth, Erin, Frans and Wim: I do appreciate your kind feedback; thank you so much. Salut Salon are impressive, indeed. I'm happy to hear you enjoyed their performance, too!