Mendelssohn: Complete Songs Vol.3
Fanny Hensel - ‘The Other Mendelssohn’
For this third volume in a complete survey of Mendelssohn songs, Malcolm Martineau shines the spotlight on ‘the other Mendelssohn’, with a complete volume of songs by his sister Fanny Hensel. Her professional attitude to domestic music-making is decribed by Martineau as ‘revolutionary’ and her early death, within five months of her celebrated brother, was a great loss to the musical world. Despite his enthusiasm and support for her work, Felix Mendelssohn did not approve of her publishing her work – but thankfully for us she defied it, daring to publish her Opus 1 songs under her own name a year before her death in 1847. For many years her music was appraised in the context of her brother’s work, considered as lesser clones of his output. Now that more of her work is known, that opinion has changed thanks to work by scholars including Steven Rogers pointing to Fanny’s Bachian voice-leading in numerous passages, her complex interweaving of voice and piano parts, and more intense chromaticism than her brother achieves. The settings are of spring songs, of poetry by Eichendorff, Lenau, Schiller, Goethe and even Heine who she knew personally but did not like, but admitted to be a great poet. Malcolm Martineau has assembled, as always, a cast of wonderful young singers for this refreshing and important repertoire. Both volumes one and two have been highly critically acclaimed for both performance and sound quality.
- Sleeve Notes
‘The other Mendelssohn’, the remarkable scholar R. Larry Todd calls Fanny Hensel in the subtitle of his book about her, and the phrase is multivalent. Fanny Mendelssohn (14 November 1805 – 14 May 1847) was especially close to her younger brother Felix, the most famous member of the pair until recently. Throughout their lives – which ended only five months apart – they were each other’s musical lode-stars in a complex relationship with elements of competition, encouragement, jealousy, love, ambivalence, paternalistic protectiveness and more. ‘I’m a nitpicking Schuhu [a screech owl associated in animal mythology with tyrants] and I belong to the savage race of brothers’, he once wrote to her before delivering assurances of his liking for her works. Educated alongside her brother through adolescence, she was confined to the domestic sphere of well-to-do bourgeois women in 19th-century Berlin, once she had married Wilhelm Hensel (a painter to the Prussian court) and given birth to her son Sebastian. Women of her class were not allowed to become professional musicians, much less composers. But despite these constraints, Fanny found ways to express her gifts in the famous Sonntagsmusiken, or Sunday salons; her father Abraham had begun the musical circle in 1823 to benefit his oldest children, especially Felix, and Fanny now revived the salon under her own direction in 1831. And little by little, she overcame her doubts about her extraordinary compositional ability, even daring to publish her Op. 1 songs under her own name the year before her sudden death from a stroke on 14 May 1847.
For a long time, Fanny’s compositions were (where they were considered at all) received as less-inspired clones of her brother’s works. Now that more of her music is available, we can see and hear her distinctive musical voice and can even wonder on occasion who influenced whom. The scholar Stephen Rodgers is one of those pointing to Fanny’s Bachian voice-leading in numerous passages, her complex interweaving of voice and piano parts, and more intense chromaticism than is her brother’s wont. Her musical mother Lea, steeped in Bach’s music, noted Fanny’s ‘Bach fingers’ at birth, and the young girl would later study theory and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, a crucial figure in the Bach Revival of the 19th century. The result, evident in the songs that were the mainstay of Fanny’s creative endeavors throughout her life, is a distinctive style, finely-crafted and profound.
Both Fanny and Felix were fond of spring songs (the north German climate has that effect) and the poetry of the Catholic Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff. In his Morgenständchen, Nature’s songs and the poet’s song merge in the midst of the forest, where mystic experiences so often in Eichendorff’s realm. Rapid, elemental thrumming in the piano tells us that all of Nature is aquiver, and the vocal phrases often march straight upwards in exhilaration, as if drawn irresistibly into this poet’s ‘weite Welt’ (wide world). To evoke the mystery of Nature, Fanny resorts to an eloquent unison passage midway, before resuming the former lively motion. Robert Schumann too was fond of Eichendorff and had set Ich kann wohl manchmal singen to music some six years before Fanny’s lovely, flowing version, with its broken-chordal, harp-like accompaniment. The poet tells of melancholy and longing beneath the surface of a seemingly happy song; Fanny accordingly both alternates between the initial major mode (‘as if I were happy’) and minor mode and – this is typical of her – destabilizes both, the music shot through with chromatic pitches. For Im Herbst, composed two years earlier, Fanny gives voice to the poetic character’s underlying desperation in the midst of forest loneliness; the piano, with its stark doublings between left and right hands, tells us that he has been driven there. But he also hears distant bells from his childhood—we hear them in the piano – that seem as if drawing him into his grave. At the final word ‘Grab’, a last reminiscence of the intense, driven figure returns.
Another Romantic poet beloved of composers was Nikolaus Lenau, a restless, gloomy creature who tried to live in a Utopian community in Indiana, fell hopelessly in love with a friend’s wife (Sophie von Löwenthal), and succumbed to mental illness in 1844. He is the poet of lost youth, the inexorable passage of time, and overwhelming sense of futility, of Weltschmerz and emptiness. In 1841, Fanny set his Traurige Wege, a characteristically melancholy poem in which love is no match for hopelessness; at the end, the poet asks whether the dead in their graves weep as the pair goes by. With her customary chromatic complexity, Fanny departs the opening key shortly after the start of each strophe – repetition reinforces the hopelessness – and sends the Romantic ‘horror chord’ (diminished seventh chord) wafting upwards and disappearing into the high treble near the gloomy end of it all, with another stark unison phrase before the close. In her highly productive year of 1846, Fanny returned to Lenau’s poetry and wrote seven songs in quick succession. For Vorwurf, another poem about the death of love, Fanny chooses the unusual key of G-sharp minor, sounds a Baroque ‘walking bass’ in the piano, and creates a dense fog of chromaticism. The mention of wandering birds impels a brief moment of brightness, quickly dispelled, and the song ends with a Baroque ‘Picardy third’ (closing a work in minor mode on a major chord).
One of Friedrich von Schiller’s most popular poems with composers was Thekla’s song ‘Des Mädchens Klage’, or Fanny’s Der Eichwald brauset, from Act 5 of his drama Die Piccolomini (the second play in the Wallenstein trilogy). Both Fanny and Felix set this poem to music, and we do not know which came first – possibly Fanny’s in 1826. (Felix’s version is undated and only appeared posthumously in print.) In this instance, the songs are too much alike for coincidence to be at work: they are in the same meter, and both entail minor mode turbulence that turns to major mode at the end. The initial phrases are very similar, but Felix’s version is more elaborate.
It seems only right to pair a Schiller song with a Goethe song: the two writers – the two colossi astride the German literary landscape--were close friends and associates until Schiller’s death in 1805. And who does not love the story of the 73-year-old great poet being so kind to the 12-year-old Felix in 1821, when they met; on a return visit in 1822, Goethe reportedly said, ‘I am Saul, and you are my David; when I am sad and dreary, come to me and cheer me with your music’. A lion in winter encountered a child prodigy. For both siblings, Goethe was an inevitable source of texts for music, including Fanny’s August 1833 setting of Gegenwart. In this 1812 poem in six lilting tercets and dactylic trimeters, a lover hymns the all-creating power of love as he awaits his love; like the sun, the beloved endows the lover with eternal life. This is one of Fanny’s most expansive songs, and she must have enjoyed imbuing the largely diatonic initial section with inflections of chromatic desire, whirling both the vocal line and the piano part into an exuberant dance when the beloved’s dancing is invoked, dipping into darker harmonies when night appears, and ending with cross-rhythms to tell of palpitating passion.
Fanny knew Heinrich Heine personally and did not like him: ‘He’s too affected... speaks endlessly about himself... .but if one has felt contempt for him ten times in a row, the eleventh time he forces one to recognize that he’s a poet, a true poet! Words sing for him, and nature speaks to him as she only speaks to poets’. Heine sent his poem Gleich Merlin, dem eitlen Weisen, to the composer Ferdinand Hiller, inviting him to set it to music and saying with characteristic self-mockery, ‘No one else can write a poem like this. It takes at least three months of idleness’. With his pen as a scalpel dissecting both Romantic poetry and bourgeois desire, Heine compares his situation to that of the aged sorcerer Merlin ensnared by Niniane in a web of passion. Fanny weaves her own magic, pairing constantly shifting broken-chordal patterns in the piano with an unpredictable vocal line; it is very difficult to tell from the singer’s part where one is tonally. It is unlikely that Fanny knew Franz Schubert’s immortal setting of Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus (Schubert’s title is ‘Am Meer’, D. 957, no. 12), and her conception is very different from his. Her version is a true barcarolle, with its defining traits of minor mode, 6/8 meter, and melodic loveliness. Heine’s poem ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ – Fanny’s Fichtenbaum und Palme – -traffics in the polarity of a northern pine tree in ice and snow (the Romantic poet) dreaming of a far-away, mournful Oriental palm. Funereal music in E-flat major for the ice-and-snowbound pine, complete with a tolling bell in the left hand, is transformed to far-off B major for the ethereal palm. Fanny had no qualms about editing out Heine’s more cynical passages, as in Ach, die Augen sind es wieder. She set the first two stanzas, in which a lover declares that these are once again the eyes, lips, and voice that had earlier sweetened his life, but now he is changed. The third stanza has him lying listless and uninterested on her bosom – and Fanny omitted it. Instead, passion sounds in the palpitating piano chords throughout, the composer decisively rejecting the poet’s barbed irony.
Two plangent laments follow, beginning with the 18th-century poet Friedrich Klopstock’s (famous for his epic poem Der Messias) Die frühen Gräber. Fanny’s ability to devise original and haunting textures is on display here, the austere accompaniment buried tomb-like in the low bass, with an exquisite vocal melody above this somber backdrop. The melisma in the singer’s final phrase and its broad wing-span are both characteristic of this composer. One of Fanny’s loveliest songs is her setting of Heine’s Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß; the poem consists almost entirely of anguished questions, ending with the crucial query, ‘Why did you leave me?’ Fanny accordingly destabilizes the main key (seldom securely in evidence) in search of an answer that will never arrive. Once again, she edits Heine, changing his word ‘Leichenduft’ (corpse-like odor) to ‘verwelkter Blütenduft’ (the scent of withered blossoms). In place of Heine’s shattering cynicism, Fanny reinforced the central poetic image of faded roses symbolizing abandoned love.
In 1825, Felix and his father Abraham stopped in Weimar on their way to and from Paris and visited Goethe; Felix gave the poet his Piano Quartet in B minor, Op. 3, dedicated to the great poet. Fanny could only experience Weimar through Felix’s reports, but she set four of his poems to music in the spring and another four in the autumn, including Harfners Lied. The two most haunting characters in Goethe’s influential 1795-6 novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship) are ‘the Harper’ and his daughter by unwitting incest, Mignon. The late 18th century made a distinction between ‘Einsamkeit’ (solitude, which could be positive or negative) and being ‘allein’ (alone), the latter usually a sad or even pathological state. In this song, the Harper declares that such as he who surrender to solitude are soon left alone by others; at the end, he anticipates the day when the quasi-anthropomorphized figure of Torment will finally depart. Fanny directs performers to sing and play this work in recitative style; at the end, when the Harper wishes he could be ‘solitary in the grave’ and Pain might leave him ‘alone’, Fanny shifts back and forth between major and minor, between the wished-for and the real.
Dämmrung senkte sich von oben is the eighth poem in Goethe’s Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten (Chinese-German Days and Years) of 1827. From French translations of Chinese novels and poems, Goethe created a cycle of 14 poems in which sensitive, empathic, highly cultivated people contemplate idyllic Nature with the wisdom of ripe understanding – quite like the elderly Goethe. Fanny had undergone a period of compositional drought in 1842, but in 1843, her creativity returned with this marvelous song. Here, death arrives gently as the falling dusk, rendering everything indistinct, hazy, wavering. Fanny’s dusky death is radical chromaticism, with brief brightness for the ‘gentle light of the evening star’ before the misty unknown settles in once more. To see death approach and still revel in starlight: that is late Goethe, and Fanny meets the challenge of such poetic beauty with depths of her own.
In late 1836, Felix asked Fanny to contribute songs to a Christmas album for Cécile Jeanrenaud, after meeting her in May 1836 and becoming engaged in September. One was the newly-composed Suleika, or ‘Ach! um deine feuchten Schwingen’, with Wilhelm contributing a vignette in which Cécile is a Persian princess, playing a lute and framed by flowers. Neither Schubert nor the Mendelssohns could have known that these words from Goethe’s Der west-östliche Divan of 1819, inspired by the medieval Persian master Hafiz, were actually written by Marianne von Willemer, who had been rescued as a child-actress and brought up by Goethe’s friend Johann Jakob Willemer. Goethe met Marianne for the first time in August 1814, when he was 65 and she was 20; Marianne could not conceal the intense emotional bond that quickly sprang up between them and therefore the 54-year-old Willemer hastily married Marianne before a second meeting with Goethe, who became ‘Hatem’ to her ‘Suleika’ in the West-East Anthology. In Persian mythology, the East and West winds bear messages between lovers, and Fanny therefore sends arpeggiated breezes wafting throughout the song. In her trademark fashion, she also sends the music on tonal travels, leaving the home key quickly.
Fanny’s 1827 song Die Schiffende was first published in Neue Original-Compositionen für Gesang und Piano for 1836 under her own name and in company with Felix’s duet ‘Wie kann ich froh und lustig sein’. The words are by Ludwig Hölty, who died at age 28 of consumption in 1776 and in whose works we find great sensitivity to nature, the influence of folk poetry, and a distinctive, refined melancholy. In ‘Die Schiffende’, he sings of Anna Juliane Hagemann, with whom he was smitten; here, she sails a skiff on a silvery pond, or chromaticism-adorned, broken-chordal waves in the piano. Hölty also hails his beloved (called Laura, after Petrarch’s muse) in Kein Blick der Hoffnung, which, like ‘Die Schiffende’, features a dramatic descending leap in the first vocal phrase and wave-like piano figuration. Hölty was classically-educated, and his poem (one of his best) Die Mainacht is written in Alcaiac stanzas, a form believed to have been invented by the ancient Greek poet Alcaeus from the isle of Lesbos. Many people are familiar with Brahms’ Op. 43, No. 2 setting, but Fanny’s strophic setting is a beautiful rendering in a style that, although quite different from Brahms, bears comparison with his. The heights and depths of feeling are here made evident in the singer’s vaulting leaps upward and in the melisma with its huge wing-span at the culmination of each stanza. Here, it unforgettably emphasizes the crucial words ‘traurig’ (sad) and ‘einsame’ (lonely).
Among the poems most popular with 19th-century composers were Goethe’s two wanderer’s night-songs: ‘Über allen Gipfeln’ and ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’. While avoiding Heine in Boulogne in 1835, Fanny set Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh – on everybody’s list of immortal German poems – as one of her compressed miniatures, an epigrammatic song. Without any piano introduction, we are quietly launched into a song in which both the singer and the piano invoke rustling branches in triplets at the start, and the singer enacts going to rest in the final two long-breathed phrases. Wanderers Nachtlied is among Fanny’s best songs, in which the wanderer’s quest for ‘sweet peace’ that banishes all pain and suffering elicited from her far-ranging harmonic riches. The initial warm A-flat major (again, there is no introduction – we are inducted unannounced into the wanderer’s meditations) is destabilized by excursions to distant keys, also colored by still further chromaticism. Even when peace arrives in hushed chords at the end, we hear in the flatted sixth degree couched inside the piano in the penultimate measures the last fleeting reminder of darkness and pain.
It seems only fitting to close with three songs of wandering, that great Romantic theme par excellence. One of the great events in Fanny’s life was her family’s trip to Italy in 1839-1840, and the inaugural musical work in the extraordinary Reise-Album 1839-1840 (completed mid-November 1841) – 18 of Fanny’s Italian compositions, with title pages and vignettes by her husband Wilhelm – is, appropriately enough, Nach Süden. Wilhelm’s vignette depicts the first leg of the journey: above a train from Berlin to Potsdam, a bird flies south. Fanny created two versions of this song, one with arpeggiated waves, the other with propulsive, repeated chords. In Goethe’s Wanderlied, the wanderer’s call resounds from mountains and hills, and we trace their craggy contours in the piano. ‘That we might lose ourselves in it is why the world is so great’, the great optimist Goethe proclaims at the end of this poem, and we can well imagine what this call to self-actualization must have meant to Fanny, who encountered so much opposition from her father, brother, and society to public identity as a composer. Her affirmation is inscribed in every bar of this wonderfully vital music.
Bergeslust was Fanny’s last song, and it would provide the epitaph on her tombstone: ‘Gedanken geh’n und Lieder / Bis in das Himmelreich’, ‘Thoughts and songs soar onward into the heavenly kingdom’. Perhaps the ultimate Romantic stance is atop a mountain, surveying Time and space, here with utter joy in the freedom of one’s thoughts. The effervescence of this music, which roams lightly from one harmonic place to another, culminates in a veritable shout of triumph – and she has triumphed, at long last.
© Susan Youens
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