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21 November 2018, 16:52 | Updated: 21 November 2018, 17:10
She was one of the 19th century’s most brilliant composers – here’s everything you need to know about the wonderful Fanny Mendelssohn
Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born on 14 November 1805. She was taught to play the piano by her mother, who in turn had been taught by a student of J.S. Bach’s.
Fanny could play all 24 Preludes from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier by the time she was 13.
In 1820 she and her brother Felix Mendelssohn joined the Sing-Akademie in Berlin (a music society), directed by the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter was so impressed with the young Fanny that he wrote a letter to the author Goethe in which he said: “This child really is something special.”
Fanny and Felix’s father was tolerant rather than supportive of Fanny’s musical talents, writing to her in 1820: “Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Some of Fanny’s works were published under her brother Felix’s name, including a song called ‘Italien’. This caused some embarrassment when, at a reception in Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria told Felix Mendelssohn that she would sing her favourite song by the composer… and began to sing Italien’. Felix confessed that it was actually the work of his sister.
In 1829 she married Wilhelm Hensel, becoming Fanny Hensel, and she had her only child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel, the following year. Wilhelm was supportive of his wife’s musical life and her music was often performed at a Sunday concert series at the Mendelssohn family home.
Fanny wrote over 460 pieces of music, including a piano trio and several books of solo piano works. She wrote many works in the form ‘Songs Without Words’, a genre which her brother later became famous for. But some musicologists now believe that Fanny pioneered this music form.
Fanny only made her public performance debut in 1838, at the age of 33, when she performed her brother Felix’s Piano Concerto No.1
Fanny published her first work in her own name – her Opus 1 – in 1846, aged 41.
She died on 14 May 1847, aged 41, from complications after a stroke. Her brother Felix wrote his String Quartet No.6 in her memory before dying himself six months later.
In 2010 experts discovered that a work that had been attributed to Felix Mendelssohn since the 1970s was actually by Fanny. It had its first performance under her name on International Women’s Day, 8 March, 2017.