November 14 is the birthday of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, older sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn. As children in a wealthy and refined family in Hamburg, Fanny and her brother shared a passion for music. They were at least equally talented. One of their teachers, Carl Friedrich Zelter, actually seemed to think Fanny’s was the superior talent. In 1816, he wrote to his friend, the great poet Goethe, the “…oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.”
Fanny was a composer as well as a fine pianist. But like so many other women, she found herself automatically kept at home, out of the way of anything so vulgar as publishing and performing music for pay. Her father commented about Felix, in a letter to Fanny. He wrote, “Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” That was easy for him to say. Living with those infuriating limitations must have been hard for Fanny, as it was for Mozart’s talented sister Nannerl a century earlier.
Fanny made a good marriage and continued to compose as best she could. Her brother Felix “generously” allowed some of her compositions to be published under his name. He had at least one embarrassing incident as a result. Queen Victoria, at Buckingham Palace, announced to Felix that she was going to sing her favorite of his songs, “Italien.” He was forced to confess that it was actually his sister Fanny’s song. Served him right, if you ask me.
Fanny’s husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, encouraged her composing and playing. Her brother relied on her for critiques of his works in progress, and she collaborated with him on various pieces–probably more than we know.
Things have changed for gifted women. Recently, the prodigiously talented singer-songwriter Taylor Swift changed over from country to pop music, against the advice of her agents. Then she defied a music streaming outlet, Spotify. She decided that the outlet didn’t give proper recognition, control or compensation to artists, and she could manage nicely without them. Her new album, “1989,” is available at Target and other outlets. I wish her success.