Behind the Music—Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn

Peter Mercer-Taylor poses in front of trees
Peter Mercer-Taylor

Across the history of Western classical music, rarely do we find two major composers whose journeys toward artistic maturity were as closely intertwined as Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn’s. Born just over three years apart (Fanny on November 14, 1805, Felix on February 3, 1809), they were the oldest of four children born to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn—the one an affluent banker, the other a woman of wide-ranging cultural attainment—who lavished every conceivable advantage on their offspring. In 1817, Fanny and Felix both began piano lessons with Berlin composer/pianist Ludwig Berger. Both began studies in counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in 1819, and joined Berlin’s Singakademie in 1820. The family began holding biweekly “Sunday musicales” in 1823, at which Fanny and Felix regularly dazzled guests with their prodigious pianistic skills ( both partial to Bach, but performing Beethoven concertos by their late teens). And both composed copiously. Felix was pressed through a systematic regimen in larger forms Fanny explored only occasionally. But where smaller forms went, their styles were so nearly indistinguishable that three of Fanny’s works were included in each of Felix’s first two published sets of songs (Op. 8 and 9, containing twelve songs each), without the slightest fear anyone would know the difference.

They were not, however, being prepared for similar destinies. Fanny was 14 when she received from her father a letter reminding her of what might and might not be hoped for: “Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament… your very joy at the praise he earns proves that you might, in his place, have merited equal approval.” In 1829, Felix left to travel Europe and seek his musical fortune (eventually settling in Leipzig) and Fanny got married, she and her husband—Berlin painter Wilhelm Hensel—taking up quarters in her parents’ home. As she wrote in her diary, “Felix, our soul, is leaving, the second half of my life stands before me.”

Thereafter, the two led very different lives. Felix rose rapidly toward widespread recognition as Europe’s most significant composer and conductor. Fanny’s public profile was significant, but more modest. The regular Sunday musicales she ran made the Mendelssohn/Hensel household one of Berlin’s most vibrant musical hubs: her audiences included Prussian royalty, her programs encompassing celebrities from Franz Liszt to Clara Schumann (with Fanny herself an acclaimed regular). Though among the most prolific female composers of the century, Fanny composed only intermittently through her adulthood, entering the domain of publication—without Felix’s encouragement—only in the final year of her life.

Yet Fanny and Felix remained close musical confidants, trading reports on their activities, impressions of their musical worlds, and, of course, new compositions. Neither handled the other with kid gloves. After receiving Felix’s lukewarm assessment of one of the three cantatas she composed in 1831, Fanny abandoned the genre for good. And when Felix shared with Fanny early ideas for revisions to his “Italian” Symphony, she was openly disparaging (those revisions went uncompleted, and Felix never published the piece). But encouragement was the norm. And all of their correspondence breathes a spirit of the deepest mutual affection and respect.

As their early lives were intertwined, so were their deaths. On May 14, 1847—while rehearsing her brother’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht—Fanny suffered the first of a series of strokes. She died later that night. Felix reportedly screamed and fainted when he heard the news, his already-fragile health entering a final downward spiral. Less than six months later, he too suffered a series of strokes, dying on November 4, 1847. Their lives were too brief, certainly, but each had had time enough to provide to the world a rich bounty of musical work, and, to the other, an abiding source of inspiration, support, and artistic companionship.

by Peter Mercer-Taylor, Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota, whose scholarship is divided among Felix Mendelssohn, rock-era popular song, and 19th-century American hymnody.