discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the category “Berlin”

Jessie McCabe – this girl did

It took me decades of music making, after years of music education, to reach what I’ve called elsewhere – on Four Thought – my Morecambe and Wise moment (the moment when you ask yourself ‘Why are Eric and Ernie sharing a bed?’ and life is never the same again, there’s no way back to the days of innocence). I suddenly, and belatedly, realised that I had never played, sung or studied a single piece of classical music by a woman, and that I could count on the fingers of one hand the performances I had heard. Actually, one finger of one hand.

And now, here’s Jessie McCabe, aged seventeen, who, with the clarity (and effortless command of social media) of youth, is telling truth to power – specifically calling out the EdExcel exam board on their male-only syllabus.

Suddenly people (or rather people in the media) are talking about the issue, all thanks to Jessie McCabe. Do have a look at this piece by Caroline Criado-Perez in The Independent. She not only asked intelligent questions when she interviewed me, but listened to my answers. And just this morning, I cycled in the pouring rain up to Radio Oxford to do a live interview on the Today programme. You’ll find me and James Naughtie sandwiched between Greg Rutherford and the nine o’ clock news, so it’s all a bit rushed, but for a girl like me who was brought up without television and still doesn’t watch much of it (apart from the cycling), this is nearly as good as it gets. Nearly, because I can still dream of Private Passions on Radio 3…Michael Berkeley, hear my prayer.

As ever, as I cycled back down the Banbury Road, and as I slowly stopped shaking, I thought of all the things I should have said, or said more clearly. I regretted not speaking more about creativity against the odds, or about the hunger out there for women’s music (surely it’s not a coincidence that when Radio 3 listeners were asked which composer should feature in a listeners’ choice special edition of Composer of the Week, they chose Louise Farrenc?) or about how we can change the way we talk about women composers, which happened to be the subject of my most recent post. But most of all, I feel guilty and foolish at having singled out Fanny Hensel as the forgotten composer with most to offer us – but I hope the ghosts of Caccini and Strozzi, of Jacquet de la Guerre and Martines, of Boulanger and Maconchy will forgive me. (Clara Schumann can look after herself…)

This mini media frenzy – I should also mention that this very blog has been featured by WordPress – has slightly overshadowed the more mundane, but nevertheless, to me, thrilling moment when my book moved off my desk and into production. It now has definite publication dates (7 April 2016 in the UK, 12 May in the USA – careful readers will note that 1 April did indeed turn out to be a joke), a beautiful cover, more of which next time, and you can even now pre-order it on amazon. If you use amazon.

But the last word, today at least, should go to Fanny Hensel because, lying behind my appreciation of her exceptional talent as a composer is an appreciation of just how hard-won a victory it was for her to get her music published in the final years of her life, and how short-lived that victory would be.

Fanny_Hensel_1842 The happiness that exudes from Hensel in 1846, four years after this portrait was commissioned by her family (who ensured that it contained absolutely no indication of her musical ability, whether as performer or composer) is infectious and inspiring. Here’s how I write about it, which includes, more importantly, what she has to say about finally moving out from the private to the public world.

when asked by publishers, Hensel compiled a list of her compositions which were still ‘floating around the world concealed.’ Three more collections headed for the presses. The year ended with the writing of a piano trio, conceived (as so many previous works had been) as a birthday present for a family member, in this case, her sister Rebecka. The Trio’s first movement begins in suppressed tension, and builds to a powerful close. The second movement runs seamlessly into the third, which is marked Lied, linking it clearly with Hensel’s earlier ‘Songs for piano.’ The writing for the piano is fascinating, giving great freedom to the performer whose part, in the final movement is marked ad libitum. As an album note puts it, the musicdrives to a grand climax as the strings, once again set two octaves apart, soar high above the tremolandi piano, and the trio powers its way to a resounding close in D major.’ In her diary, in May 1846, Fanny Hensel wrote ‘I feel as if newly born.’

She was only too well aware how long this moment had taken to arrive: ‘I cannot deny that the joy in publishing my music has also elevated my positive mood. So far, touch wood, I have not had unpleasant experiences, and it is truly stimulating to experience this type of success first at an age by which it has usually ended for women, if indeed they ever experience it.’

The wonder is heightened by a sense of the time that has passed: ‘To be sure, when I consider that 10 years ago I thought it too late and now is the latest possible time, the situation seems rather ridiculous, as does my long-standing outrage at the idea of starting opus 1 in my old age.’ Fanny is, of course, being ironic about her ‘old age.’ She was only forty, and feeling good on it, noting in August 1846 that ‘the indescribable feeling of well-being, which I have had this entire summer, still continues.’

We need to talk about Fanny (Hensel)

I just downloaded another recording of Hensel’s solitary String Quartet (which remained in manuscript until the 1980s). It’s an exhilarating performance by the Quatuor Ebène, almost raw in its intensity compared to the one, by the Asasello Quartet, with which I’m more familiar.

I wanted to find out more about the Ebène quartet and their brave (yes, it is still brave to record women’s music, it still needs a defence, so we are reassured that the quartet is ‘worth hearing’ – phew, what a relief, I haven’t wasted nearly twenty minutes of my life on something worthless) decision to play Hensel. I wanted to know why a young, all-male quartet with quite an edgy image

The adventurous Ebene Quartet kicks off a week of live chamber music at the Greene Space at WQXR in New York.

Hensel sketch

chose to play this woman’s work.

And so began a miserable encounter with the language we continue to use when talking about female composers, language that patronises, dismisses, misrepresents, ignores, and always and ever ends up comparing a composer to her male counterparts. The composer becomes, implicitly, a (failed) contestant in a race that they were never invited to join in the first place. It’s all the more miserable because I can’t seem to crush my optimism, can’t quite stop myself from feeling thrilled when I find that the Ebène quartet won a BBC Music Magazine award for their interpretation of Hensel’s quartet – wow! mainstream! – that they were praised and rewarded as advocates of her music – wow! progress!

But then it all goes horribly wrong. This is from a website promoting the CD.

“Felix’s quartets speak with intimacy, but are not devoid of violent, stormy emotion,” says Ebène cellist Raphaël Merlin. Although Fanny’s sole contribution to the genre is lesser known and undoubtedly less accomplished than her brother’s, the group simply “fell in love with her string quartet” and with sublime, spirited playing made a compelling case for the rarely recorded work.

No, no, no. What does ‘undoubtedly less accomplished’ actually mean? No matter: whoever wrote this sees it as a given, and doesn’t need to justify it with any rational, let alone musically-based argument. Yes, the quartet is less well-known. Would it not be interesting to ask why that is? How that happened? But instead, we are simply encouraged to make the lazy causal jump from ‘less accomplished’ to ‘lesser known’.

I pressed on regardless, wanting to find out why the musicians ‘fell in love’ with Hensel’s Quartet. Gramophone Magazine spiced up the quest by praising, in April 2013, the Ebène for their ‘ full-on playing and lively engagement with the music’, noting that with every disc that they record ‘there’s the unmistakable sense that they have something to say and an urgent need to say it’.

So what did they want to say about Fanny Hensel’s quartet? I watched over thirteen minutes of video footage, which promotes the CD. It was fascinating to hear the four musicians talk about their art. But (oh, again, my idiotic optimism) not a word about Hensel. One player said ‘you have to respect the person who created the music’, but the video referred exclusively to ‘Mendelssohn’ (ie Felix). In a final kick in the teeth, the only female voice that is heard is off camera at the start of the film, and she is the recipient of what I am forced to call banter, including a final joke about the male players’ preventing her having an orgasm. It’s all here at no fanny hensel.

I kept looking. I found that the quote about falling in love with Hensel’s quartet was originally followed by the comment that she composed ‘with surprising freedom’. Great – but wouldn’t it be interesting to think about why you find it surprising? Alternatively, wouldn’t it be a sign of ‘respect’ for the composer to try to understand why certain kinds of ‘freedom’ were utterly denied to Hensel, as a composer, as a woman?

But, the bottom line is, I am grateful to the Ebène quartet for making this music live, and in awe of their ability to do so.

My real despair centres not on these screamingly obvious examples of sexist banter or patronizing dismissiveness. They are easy to spot, easy to call out. What is more insidious is well-meaning phrases like these, from Presto Classical’s review of the disk: Fanny ‘being a woman, was never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’. Her quartet ‘contains themes, ideas and moments every bit as good as anything from Felix’.

I know I should be grateful for this justification of the quality of Hensel’s music (she’s just as good as her brother), and for at least the acknowledgement that her chromosomes determined whether she could build a career. But there’s such passivity in the words. Fanny Hensel was ‘never in a position to build a career in the way that her brother had’ because time and time again, and in subtly powerful ways, over decades, she was stopped from doing so – by others. That she did at last – gloriously, courageously – ‘build a career’ in the final months of her life is, for me, one of the most moving struggles I have written about. Critics who do take Hensel’s music seriously cannot resist bringing Felix into the equation. They appreciate the ‘darker soundworld of Fanny Mendelssohn’s’ quartet’ (ie darker than Felix’s) or celebrate her work as ‘formally and harmonically, more daring than Felix’s’. Add to the mix the fact that Fanny is invariably known by her maiden name. Is this about reassuring people of her pedigree? Is it an attempt to trick naïve buyers into consuming women’s music, sweetening the bitter pill? Surely the composer deserves to be judged in her own right, rather than always placed in a sentence along with her brother, the same brother who – for reasons that made absolute sense to him, and much of the Mendelssohn family, together with much of elite Berlin society – worked tirelessly to ensure that she would have no ‘career’.

I need cheering up. You probably do too. So, in a narrative leap that makes complete sense to me, and might just make sense to you, here (thanks to ITV 4) is Marianne Vos, the greatest female cyclist of our era, responding to Anna van der Breggen’s victory in La Course. (For those of you who do not follow cycling, La Course is a step forward in women’s cycling. The women are allowed a couple of hours of racing before the men on the final day of three week Tour de France. It’s a start.)


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.

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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