Fanny Hensel as you’ve never seen her before
Although there are many portraits of Fanny Hensel, there is none of her as composer – no portrait which places her at the keyboard, or shows her musician’s hands, or captures her as she dreams of her next sonata. (Funnily enough, there are quite a few of her brother….)
But, as it turns out, the Queen of England herself owns a picture in which Fanny Hensel can be seen, complete with her musician hands.
The picture is ‘Song of Praise’ and the painter is Fanny’s husband, Wilhelm, the man who encouraged her every step of the way in her quest to compose, who wanted her to publish her music, who could not bear her death.Wilhelm used Fanny as the model for the figure of Miriam. (Her sister, Rebecka, is also in the picture). He then went to London to see the Queen, the newly crowned Victoria, who was delighted with ‘Song of Praise’, but did not wish to offend British artists by buying a Prussian’s work. Wilhelm bided his time, and then, a few years later, presented the work as a gift to Victoria. In return, Queen Victoria gave him jewels, specifically for his own real-life ‘Miriam’.
Fanny, back in Berlin, was somewhat embarrassed: when would she wear such fine things? She may, somewhere, also have been uncomfortable about the linking of her own name so publicly with that of the Jewish Miriam. Her ambivalence about her Jewish heritage, or perhaps her desire for the issue to disappear, is visible in her response to the posthumous publication of the profoundly anti-semitic letters of her one-time teacher Theodor Zelter, who had spent years being polite to the Mendelssohns’ face whilst spreading poison behind their backs. Zelter displays prejudice and ill-will in equal measure. Fanny response is telling, however.‘It’s said of me that I play like a man, and I have to thank either God or Zelter that this remark is not followed by any of the unseemly observations [ie the anti-semitic comments] with which the book is blessed’. Fanny seems to think it is better to be insulted for a lack of femininity than it is for being a Jew. She may have a point in the Prussia of her time.
To me, there is something both fitting and deeply ironic about Fanny’s memorialisation in the British Royal collection as Jewish Miriam, the older sister of two famous brothers Aaron and Moses. Miriam was born in Egypt at a time of slavery for the Jewish people, but, with her brothers, would lead the Jews from Egypt to their promised land. She remains a contested figure in Jewish thinking. Not all would agree with this summary of her life from a current, conservative Jewish website, with its due deference to traditional gender roles:
Like the true mother in Israel that she was, she undoubtedly devoted her time to the women and children, and did not otherwise take part in public life. On one occasion however, she made an exception. [Immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea] Moses and all the people broke into song in praise of G-d, singing the well-known “Song at the Sea”. Then was Miriam also inspired with the spirit of G-d, and she took a timbrel in her hand and led the women dancing with timbrels. And Miriam repeated for them the refrain, “Sing unto G-d, for He has triumphed greatly; horse and rider He cast into the sea.
As is only too evident from my blog posts, I am a huge Hensel fan. To me (if not to her….and, if I’m honest, only to me when I’ve had a glass or three of wine) she will always now be the poster girl for female Jewish warrior composers. What’s not to like?
With regard to copyright, I am clearly less frightened of my own Queen than I am of Google (see my blog about Clara Schumann and that google doodle) but if your Majesty, or indeed your Majesty’s lawyers, are reading this, then please be assured that this blog is for educational purposes and for educational purposes only. Oh yes.