discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

‘I still would like to have a bit more time…’

I’ve been listening, over and over, to Fanny Hensel’s piano work Das Jahr, in a wonderful recording made by Lauma Skride. Hensel’s music has been a revelation, one of many over the past months, but perhaps, right now, the most powerful. It was Fanny Hensel (born Mendelssohn, and Felix’s big sister) who wrote the words above. Her mother had recently died, and she was sorting through her papers. Fanny hoped that she herself had a ‘bit more time’ left. A bit, yes, but not much. She died at 41.

I suspect I’m over-invested in her story and that does not make for easy writing. I respond, too personally, to her ongoing struggle with the mind-forged manacles (forged both in her own mind, and in the minds of others) that chained her within ideas of ‘proper femininity’; to her desire to please the men – often lovely, kind men – in her life and be the perfect wife, mother, sister, daughter; to her position as a converted, and thus precariously assimilated, Jew. I also respond to the fact that she just kept going, producing more (and better?) music than any other woman in the nineteenth century despite only the faintest prospect of that music reaching the public’s ears. Perhaps though it’s more visceral than that. Today I was trying to write her death, and a small voice was saying – ‘it’s just not fair’. For goodness sake, she wanted more time. She needed more time.

Nearly an hour in length, Das Jahr is ‘arguably her most impressive accomplishment’, writes Hensel’s most impressive biographer (R. Larry Todd, author of Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn). Todd argues that Das Jahr is ‘more forward-looking and original than’ Fanny’s brother Felix Mendelssohn’s work, that it’s one of the ‘greatest of the unheralded piano suites of the nineteenth century’. It is a powerful, compelling, at times sumptuous, at times pellucid, piece of music. I keep hoping to find it on a concert programme somewhere, but no joy yet. Meanwhile, I’ve still got to kill Fanny Hensel. Maybe it’s time to become a novelist. I’d love to give her another twenty years…

By the way, you can find Das Jahr on but the sound quality is not great. Lauma Skribe’s performance is, I think, marvellous. I’ve just checked out an interview with Skribe, and funnily enough, she, like Fanny Hensel, is the sister of someone more well-known.

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One thought on “‘I still would like to have a bit more time…’

  1. Pingback: Great music by great women: just one click away | shadowofthecourtesan

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