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Fanny, a musical genius who broke the notes of gender prejudice
The story of a 19th-century pianist and composer who challenged the patriarchy of classical music
In the cosmos of classical music, women have faced social and cultural restrictions imposed in their eras. They had to fight against gender discrimination and the lack of opportunities to express their talent. Many were even forced to perform only in private environments, such as living rooms and courtyards and did not have the opportunity to see their works performed in public.

The social norms of the time deemed composing an activity unsuitable for women, thus excluding them from the official history of music.

Despite this, many women fought these restrictions with their talents and left a significant imprint on classical music.

Pianists such as Clara Schumann and Elisabetta de Gambarini (born in London to an Italian father, one of the few women to be recognized as a composer of musical works in the 18th century), female composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi and Louise Farrenc and the French singer-songwriter Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (he was noted for his innovative and sophisticated music) and many others have struggled to make their way into the world of classical music and have contributed significantly to its evolution.

However, one in particular caught my attention: the German composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of the well-known composer Felix Mendelssohn, a pioneer in the use of the Lied (song) form and chamber music.

Fanny, despite being a very talented composer, was unable to publish most of her works under her real name. Instead, his compositions were published under the name of his brother Felix Mendelssohn, a well-known and successful composer.

There is more

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (November 14, 1805 – May 14, 1847), 19th-century German composer and pianist, was the older sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, and both were from a highly educated Jewish family.

Fanny was born in Hamburg, Germany and raised in Berlin. Her family was very attentive to education, and Fanny received a high level of musical and literary education. He composed his first opera at age 13, and continued to write music for the rest of his life.

Despite her talent and passion for composing, society at the time was not supportive of women pursuing professional music. Therefore, Fanny never published her works under her own name, but circulated them among friends and family, who greatly appreciated them. Despite this, some of his compositions were publicly performed during his lifetime, such as his Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 6.

In addition to her musical activity, Fanny was also a highly educated woman interested in literature and philosophy. He read in many languages, including English, French and Italian, and maintained a large circle of friends and correspondents, including the celebrated poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel in 1829, and they had one son, Sebastian. Even after her marriage, she continued to compose and play the piano, often giving private concerts in their home. Fanny was also an accomplished organizer and cultural promoter, arranging concerts for her musician friends and inviting famous musicians to play at their home.

There aren't many pictures that depict Fanny, but the few available show an elegant and refined woman. She is usually described as a very beautiful woman, with large, bright eyes and dark hair. She has also been described as a very kind and charming individual, with a friendly and welcoming personality. However, like many women of her time, she was often limited by her social standing and gender expectations of the time. She was even opposed by her father who did not tolerate her activity as a composer. He wrote to her in 1820: “Perhaps music will become his (Felix's) profession, while for you it can and should be just an ornament“.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel died in Berlin in 1847, aged 41, of a stroke. Her death came as a great shock to family and friends, and Felix Mendelssohn dedicated some of his works to his sister, such as the String Quartet in E flat major, op. 44, no. 3.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's work reflects the influence of many of the great composers of her time, such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johann Sebastian Bach. He was particularly skilled in writing works for the piano, and many of his compositions for this instrument are among his best known works. His music is characterized by melodic beauty and great formal elegance.

In recent years, the work of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel has received renewed interest and attention from scholars and the public, who have rediscovered her importance as a composer and cultural figure in the 19th century.

The figure of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel shows us how female emancipation has been a constant struggle in every age and sector, even in that of music. Her life and works are a symbol of perseverance, creativity and passion, as well as an example of how women have had to overcome cultural and social obstacles to make their way in a world still dominated by men.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and the other pianists of the past have made a fundamental contribution to paving the way for greater female empowerment, demonstrating that talent and creativity transcend gender and that music, as an art form, is capable of every barrier imposed on us by society.

Portrait of Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, 1842. From the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York; Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, portrait by Eduard Magnus, 1846.

Other information

Many musicologists and music historians have studied the figure of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. If you want to learn more, I can suggest:

R. Larry Todd, author of several books on the music of Felix Mendelssohn and his family, also wrote an essay on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel entitled "Fanny Mendelssohn and the Bach Revival in Nineteenth-Century Germany".

Angela Mace Christian, author of “The Musical Work of Fanny Hensel”, has analyzed in detail the music of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her position within the musical context of her time.

Nancy B. Reich, author of a biography of Clara Schumann, devoted a chapter to the life and music of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel in her book “Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman”.

Roberto Illiano, musicologist, wrote the book “Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847). The restless music of a restless woman”, in which she analyzes the figure of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her musical production.

Emily Abrams Ansari wrote “The Sound of Feminine Voice in Early Modern Japan”, a book that studies the music of women in Edo period Japan, and which contains a chapter on the “lost female composers” of Europe, including Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel .

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