Reflections on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 (1846)
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)
In February of 1847, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote in her diary,
I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has elevated my positive mood . . . it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it. 
Fanny’s allusion to “this type of success” centered on the long-awaited publication of her compositions under her own name, a project which she had undertaken for the first time in her life in 1846.
At the age of forty-one, the publication of Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 and Vier Lieder for piano, Op. 2 marked her public arrival as a recognized composer. Before 1846, the only musical works of Fanny’s that had been made public were several Lieder, published under her brother’s name in his own collections of songs.
She was far from a stranger, however, to the field of musical composition, an expertise that she had passionately honed since the age of thirteen. Born into an eminent German family, Fanny received a robust education, both musical and academic, alongside her brother, who would later become the famed composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). From an early age, Fanny was acknowledged to be a virtuoso pianist and talented composer. However, her father, Abraham Ernst Mendelssohn Bartholdy, deemed it inappropriate and “unfeminine” for Fanny to pursue a professional career in music.
In 1821, her marriage to court painter Wilhelm Hensel solidified Fanny’s primary occupation as a homemaker, wife, and mother. Despite these familial and societal expectations, she maintained a profound connection to music throughout her life, albeit in the private sphere. Fanny composed more than 450 works, advised Felix on his compositions, and hosted Sonntagsmusiken, or musical salons, on Sundays in her Berlin home. Fanny’s music often premiered at these events, which were frequented by the European cultural and musical elite of the day.
Fanny cherished an intimate, life-long friendship with Felix, who privately relied upon his sister’s opinions to develop his own compositions, while he maintained stubborn reservations about her entering the public sphere as a composer. Fanny often questioned her own abilities, internalizing the prejudices that were used to demean and diminish her ambition. In writing to a friend about her piece Faust in 1843, she wrote,
Please excuse and censure all the amateurish female snags within; a dilettante is a dreadful creature, a female author even more so, but when the two are joined into one person, of course the most dreadful being of all results. At least so far I have abstained from the printer’s ink; if someone suffers, it is my friends, and why is one in this world if not to be suffered by one’s friends? 
To experience Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 in this context, one sees that its publication was truly a personal triumph for Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who did not “abstain from the printer’s ink” as she had been advised to do all her life. Although she passed away suddenly from a stroke in 1847 after having published her work for only a year prior, she remains an influential and prolific artist of her era, overcoming the pain of self-doubt and the debilitating consequences of nineteenth-century gender stereotypes.
In den Wipfeln frische Lüfte,
Fern melod’scher Quellen Fall
Durch die Einsamkeit der Klüfte,
Waldeslaut und Vogelschall.
Scheuer Träume Speilgenossen
Steigen all beim Morgenschein,
Auf des Weinlaubs schwanken Sprossen
Dir zum Fenster aus und ein.
Und wir nah’n noch halb in Träumen
Und wir tun in Klängen kund
Was da draußen in den Bäumen
Singt der weite Frühlingsgrund.
Regt der Tag erst laug die Schwingen
Sind wir Alle wieder weit
Aber tief im Herzen klingen
Lange nach noch Lust und Leid.
Text by Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff (1788-1857)
Fresh breezes in the treetops
A distant, melodious spring’s descent
Through the solitude of the ravine
Forest sounds and birdcalls.
Timid dream’s playmates
All rise with the morning light,
From the grapevine’s swaying buds
In and out, to you at your window.
And we draw near, still half dreaming
And we make known in sound
That which outside in the trees
The wide spring valley sings.
Once the day loudly moves its wings
We are again far removed
But deep in our hearts resound
Pleasure and pain long afterwards.
Translation by Bard Suverkrop; additions by Noelle McMurtry
- Larry R. Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 334.
- Todd, Fanny Hensel, 294.