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The Other Mendelssohn

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 1986


Stephen Albert seems astonished. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer sits in the attic room of his sprawling house, his own music scattered around him, listening for the first time to the works of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; and he has the decided air of a man who has stumbled upon a lost masterpiece.

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In fact, Fanny Hensel and her music have for almost 140 years been obscured by the blazing accomplishments of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, like one of those great paintings buried beneath another painter's work.

But some of the colors in Fanny's musical self-portrait are stubbornly beginning to bleed through. Although Fanny and much of her music have for years been studied by a handful of scholars, most of them women, several of her piano pieces received a widely publicized performance in this city just a couple of weeks ago. A book of her letters to her brother is expected to be published later this year. And scholarship about her work is beginning to run strong.

To some scholars and musicians, Fanny Hensel could represent a find as felicitous as an unknown Haydn symphony or Beethoven sonata.

Hensel's music has come only grudgingly to public notice, largely through the efforts of such women as Rice University Associate Prof. Marcia J. Citron, pianist Virginia Eskin, and musicologist Victoria Sirota, who were first attracted to Hensel for reasons of feminism but were won over for the long haul by the music itself. The bulk of this music still lies unpublished in closed library and private collections; and much of it is likely to remain unpublished for a long time -- a fact that many musicians find incredible, given the quality of the known pieces.

``You feel like you're listening to a major composer, the workings of an authentic creative soul,'' Albert says quietly as he listens to Hensel's piano trio, his comments coming like an interior monologue. ``I'll tell you, she's certainly more adventurous than her brother. She's plenty talented. . . . There's a clarity of thought, a real inevitability to her music. . . . This last movement is very Brahms-like. Only it was written when Brahms was around 14 years old.''

He might have added that it was written by a woman, who was discouraged by those she revered from considering herself a serious composer, in spite of her obvious musical gifts.

Several of her songs were published under her famous brother's name during her lifetime. (During a visit to Queen Victoria, in fact, he was embarrassed when the Queen's favorite ``Felix Mendelssohn'' song turned out to be by Fanny Mendelssohn.) She had shared the same training as her brother. She was a brilliant pianist. Felix valued her musical insight highly, seldom putting anything to paper without first getting her opinion. Still, Fanny Hensel was enjoined by her father and brother and the bias of her times to accept the role of a quiet homemaker who wrote music in her spare time, the way some women made lace doilies

To a degree, the same feelings still haunt Fanny Hensel's lifework, even where her music gets a hearing.

Musicians ``always underestimate her,'' complains Victoria Sirota. ``They say, `This is by a woman,' and assume it's going to be easy, and it's not. This is tough music. It's very hard. There's a lot going on. She's not predictable. . . . These are the kinds of pieces that should be studied for years.''

Mrs. Sirota already has a leg up on that process. She has spent the last several years studying Hensel's music. That's on top of the summer she spent coming up with her educated estimate that Hensel wrote 500 pieces of music, mostly art songs, known as lieder, and songs without words. She didn't start any significant publishing until six months before her death, and then largely at the urging of her devoted husband, Wilhelm, a painter who did the best-known portrait of Fanny and who knew composing was the key to her life.

After her death at the age of 41, most of Fanny Hensel's music remained a family matter, passed down to her heirs; and, in a way, that's where most of the music stands right now. In 1965, the bulk of Fanny's works became part of the Mendelssohn Archive at the West Berlin State Library and fell under the keeping of Dr. Rudolf Elvers, a personable musicologist and Mendelssohn scholar who has kept tight reins on the music ever since. He maintains that he has an overriding interest in getting Hensel's music before the public. But in a recent interview, Dr. Elvers cited a statement from her last diary in which she says that she has published the best of her work and that ``now I am at the end of my publishing.''