The Other Mendelssohn
Boston — 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.
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 The bulk of this music still lies unpublished in closed library and private collections; and much of it is likely to remain unpublished for a long time -- a fact that many musicians find incredible, given the quality of the known pieces.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.''
``We have to respect her will,'' he added later in the interview.
``We certainly don't respect other composers in that way,'' rejoins R. Larry Todd, an associate professor at Duke University and a Mendelssohn scholar, referring in particular to early pieces by Felix that the composer never wanted given to the public, which have nevertheless been published.
Some critics maintain that the point is moot, that Hensel's work would not receive nearly so much attention as it is getting if she were not a woman, and the sister of a legendary composer at that. Her music has been criticized as lacking assurance and breadth. ``[It] seems a bit bland to me,'' says conductor David Hoose. ``But as little vignettes they are just lovely. . . . It's an incredible gift that was not really allowed to develop.'' An Opus magazine review, however, maintains that some of her lieder ``could stand alongside the best lieder of Schubert, Brahms or Wolf -- and the list need hardly end there.''
Two weeks ago in a Boston performance, pianist Seth Kimmelmen placed four of her songs without words in the daunting company of a Bach suite and a Beethoven sonata, where they seemed pristine and wonderful to a Boston Globe critic who wrote that ``these astounding pieces show her younger brother Felix a thing or two.''
``I know her work, and it's quite outstanding,'' says composer Gunther Schuller. ``She was extremely prolific, but on a very high, consistent level. The kind of thing where you say, `Why don't we know this music better?' ''
It's a question that is being asked more and more frequently.
Dr. Elvers protests that Fanny's pieces are slowly beginning to appear and mentions an upcoming volume of piano pieces. But he says the rest of her work must first be carefully transcribed and checked against all available source material, and that qualified musicologists are not interested. ``I am waiting for the right man for the job to come along,'' he adds, after first complaining about ``all these piano-playing girls who are just in love with Fanny.'' Contrasting her life with Felix's, he says, ``She was nothing. She was just a wife'' with the name Mendelssohn.
He maintains that serious musicologists and publishers have little interest in her work because ``it's too much, and it's not so good.''
Elvers also told a small gathering of scholars at Brandeis recently, ``I don't believe she will play an eminent role in music history.''
Those who would like to test his theory by getting Fanny's oeuvre out to the public must first get Elvers's permission. ``Under our statutes,'' points out a music-copyright specialist at the Library of Congress, ``if these works have never been published, they are not in the public domain, and they are in the hands of the heirs and their assigns.'' What that means to musicians is that their access to such unpublished works as a highly lyrical and fetching string quartet is severely restricted.
The Portland String Quartet tried in 1985 to record this quartet, but the group was refused a copy on the grounds that they were unknown to Dr. Elvers. The publisher C. F. Peters sent a letter to the Berlin State Library in January 1985 requesting a copy of the quartet. A reply in September told them that it had been promised to someone else.
``The official word in Berlin is to wait,'' observes Boston University's Victoria Sirota.
For Sirota, it has been a particularly long wait. Sitting underneath an idealized portrait of Fanny Hensel that hangs over the couch in her living room, she recalls bending over pages of nearly illegible musical manuscript in the library in Berlin in 1980, when she was working on her highly regarded dissertation on the life of Fanny Hensel.
``I was on the verge of giving up,'' she says. ``Then, I came across her oratorio on passages from the Bible and the recitative quoting Jesus' statement about childbirth'':
``A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: But as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish.''
Sirota explains that, at that moment, she recalled the fact that Fanny had endured a difficult but joyously concluded childbirth a few months before writing that music. And she wept. ``That's when I realized that this was a life commitment -- to get her music out.''