discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

In search of Fanny Hensel: the two chairs of Berlin

My Adventure in the Valley of the Pig was followed by a week travelling around Germany, which proved just as  vertiginous, psychologically rather than physically. Don’t look back: it’s hard not to when you are a Beer in Berlin. But that’s another story. After stalking Clara Schumann in Leipzig and Dresden – and that’s another story as well – it was time to find Fanny Hensel in Berlin. My reading had already alerted me to the myriad ways in which Hensel is hidden from us: by her brother’s magnificence; by anti-semitism; by philo-semitism; by the values and focus of traditional music history, in its insistence on the symphony and opera as the markers of greatness. Berlin made me aware of other factors. For example, Hensel was at her creative height during a period that the history books (and the German history museum) are simply not that interested in  – no battles, no revolutions, just the political stagnation and social conservatism of the Biedermeier era. My visit also brought home to me the Communist regime’s completion of the work begun by the Nazis in removing the Mendelssohns from Berlin’s history. It also revealed that Leipzig’s music heritage industry has been more assiduous than Berlin’s, at least when it comes to Felix Mendelssohn. The impressive, and recently opened, Mendelssohn-Haus is in Leipzig – here’s Felix’s music room –

Felix's room Leipzig is a beautiful (and beautifully restored) building. The staircase alone is worth the entrance fee. To listen to music in the salon on a Sunday morning was a hugely evocative experience. It brought home the ways in which this kind of music making – which lay at the heart of Fanny Hensel’s musical life – blurred boundaries between private and public spheres, between professional and amateur, between men and women. (The Schumanns had a very similar room in their first married home in Leipzig, in the newly built Inselstrasse. I didn’t get quite the same sense there, perhaps because I didn’t listen to music, merely looked at and took photographs of empty chairs in an elegant room).

Nothing similar exists for Fanny, or indeed for Felix, in Berlin. It took time and effort to track down the location of Fanny Hensel’s grave, despite the fact that she is buried next to her brother (and husband). I found to be very helpful.The cemetery walls are hardly inviting:

Holy Trinity cemetery Berlin I had naively assumed that Felix would be quite the celebrity in his native city. Although it is now true that by the mayor’s orders the Mendelssohn family plot will be maintained, and never allowed to reach the state of neglect, or worse, it suffered during the Nazi and then Communist years, it is also true that the city’s history still looms large over the gravestones.  The Christian cemetery in which the newly-minted Lutheran Mendelssohns lie was heavily bombed in World War Two, and then bisected by the Wall. In fact, it now seems to me remarkable that the gravestones exist at all:

Hensel grave

Fanny’s is the largest, second from the right. If you look carefully at the close-up you will see that there are two phrases of music from her final composition, Bergeslust.

Hensel gravestone detail On Felix’s smaller gravestone (two to the left) there is a quotation from the New Testament. I found it touching that whoever – perhaps her husband, Wilhelm? – commissioned Fanny’s memorial wanted to honour her first and foremost as a composer.

What money there is for the Mendelssohn heritage industry in Berlin has focused on the wider family. To my surprise, there was a small, and securely locked up, building near the Mendelssohn graves. It is hardly well-advertised. Peering through the window, I could see information panels, providing the history of numerous Mendelssohn family members. Earlier, I had visited the tucked away Mendelssohn-Remise in Jagerstrasse, also not exactly overwhelmed with visitors, in a building that once housed the Mendelssohn family’s banking business. The charming and well-informed woman who greeted us, and saved me from embarrassment at my lack of German – she was an American by birth, from a town in Delaware which she said we would not have heard of, and she was right – provided a useful briefing about the exhibition which provides a detailed insight into the street, and the Mendelssohn bankers. There are occasional glimpses of the Mendelssohn women – including, unnervingly, a photo of Rebecka Beer, which is the name, or part of it, of my older daughter – and the importance of music to the family is acknowledged in the weekly concerts, and the presence of a grand piano in the middle of the exhibition space.

To one side, two antique chairs sit facing each other. On closer inspection, they are the beginning (and, currently, the end) of an attempt to re-create Fanny Hensel’s music study, a room captured in all its detail in watercolour and pencil soon after her death.

Julius_Eduard_Wilhelm_Helfft_-_The_Music_Room_of_Fanny_Hensel_(nee_Mendelssohn)_-_Google_Art_Project The picture is evocative in itself: a creative space bereft of its creative artist. The same motive that led me to seek out Fanny Hensel’s tombstone (believe me, not something I usually do) also prompted an equally rare moment of pointless fantasy when faced with those two chairs. If I were rich, I thought, I’d create a memorial to Fanny Hensel. Perhaps not a static re-creation of her room, although simply putting that together would reveal so much about the texture of her life and work, but something to honour her. The moment passed. Does the world need another recreation of another nineteenth-century room? Maybe not. Perhaps to play and hear her music, rather than to source her furniture, is a better way to honour the composer Fanny Hensel.


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One thought on “In search of Fanny Hensel: the two chairs of Berlin

  1. I really look forward to each blog Anna, I’m so enjoying your writing! Hope you’re feeling much better tooth-wise; well, I suppose you must be to be travelling up and down Europe. Enjoy the rest of your Sicilian interlude to the full! M xx

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