discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Felix Mendelssohn”

A Valentine for Johanna

Do listen to this….

If it’s remarkable that women wrote classical music in the first place (when all the odds were stacked against them), it’s a bloody miracle when that music survives after their death. So, imagine my surprise when I came across this gloriously evocative recording, billed as the work of composer, Johanna Kinkel.

Now, I am well aware that, in terms of its musical quality the song is pretty average, perhaps interesting only as a period piece. But to come across any legacy for Kinkel, however trivial and/or dubious, is exciting, because this particular composer’s life has come to represent, for me at least, the dark side of the history of women’s music.

It all began so well. Kinkel was a multi-talented woman, both author and composer. She was a political radical, and, rare for her time, spoke up for the causes she believed in. She was generous in her praise for other women, as here in an account of Fanny Hensel in action:

She seized upon the spirit of the composition and its innermost fibres, which then radiated out most forcefully into the souls of the singers and audience. A sforzando from her small finger affected us like an electric shock, transporting us much further than the wooden tapping of a baton on a music stand. When one saw Fanny Hensel perform a masterpiece, she seemed larger … Even her sharp critical judgements shared with close acquaintances were founded on ideals she demanded from art and human character alike – not in impure motives of exclusion, arrogance and resentment. Whoever knew her was convinced that she was as ungrudging as she was unpretentious.

Kinkel knew Hensel’s world very well indeed, because she was absolutely part of it. Born in Bonn in 1810, she was mentored by Felix Mendelssohn, taught by some of the great figures in German music, praised by Robert Schumann for her songs.

So far so good.

The challenges would come thick and fast: an abusive first marriage (she left him); four children by her politically radical second husband; his sentence of life imprisonment, which prompted Johanna to engineer the family’s escape to England. Kinkel proved to be courageous and resourceful. She needed to be.

But then, an all-too-familiar story: in London, Kinkel would scrape a living teaching music and writing, holding the family together, financially and emotionally, while her husband continued on his revolutionary path, now in America. As a composer, she fell silent. Before she died, she did complete a novel, with a struggling, desperate composer for a hero: the fact that the hero is a man does little to conceal the work’s status as misery memoir. A visiting friend noted that she ‘accepted her lot, but not without serious dejection.’ Her health was deteriorating, ‘conditions of nervousness,’ began to appear, the news from America ‘did not suffice to cheer the darkened soul of the lonely woman.’

Kinkel’s life ended on the pavement below her St John’s Wood home. She fell, or threw herself, from an upper window. The composer’s posthumous life is just as dispiriting. An enemy, one Karl Marx (also exiled in London), viewed her as an ‘old harridan,’ and was disgusted that her husband, his political opponent, received sympathy merely because his wife had ‘broken her neck.’ Mr Kinkel, for his part, never realized his plan to publish his wife’s compositions.

For me, as a writer, it would have been all too easy to find a bookful of Kinkels, to represent every female composer’s life as a futile struggle against impossible odds. I chose instead to celebrate rather than to mourn, and I chose individuals whose music survives in enough plenty to enable us to make an informed judgement about them as composers. But sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that the Kinkels of our world should be honoured.

Whether a scratchy, quavery rendition of a somewhat trite song that might or might not actually have been written by her is the best way to honour Johanna Kinkel is another question. Maybe it’s because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in fighting mood, but, after a bit of thought, I decided to go wild and spend $19.04 on a Performer’s Edition of Johanna Kinkel’s 6 Lieder, Op.19, first published in 1848. I’m not sure I’ll fall in love with her music, but it’s time to get to know it better.

Kinkel Lieder



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.)


And what I actually said was…

Here are a few of the bits that were cut by Radio Four – a pity, since I think they took out some feisty stuff.

Here’s Fiona Maddocks (a music journalist who knows a hell of a lot about the classical music industry today):

it seems baffling, if not shocking, that even now we still use the two words woman and composer together as a collective noun, whereas it has long been out of date to refer to Barbara Hepworth or Tracey Emin as women artists.

And here’s a bit more about publication as prostitution (and Fanny Hensel…)

Respectability is never going to work for you, so you decide to move into the new media (which in the seventeenth century is print, not old-fashioned manuscript). Now, women are not supposed to publish (publication is often figured as another form of prostitution – an idea that continued well into the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons that you know Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March but you don’t know his just as talented sister’s music…) but, ironically, you’re not really a woman, you’re a courtesan. You’re already damned, you might as well publish. You are Barbara Strozzi, and you have works in print than any other composer of your generation, your century even.

And, finally, here’s how I thought I had ended the talk….

I wanted to end with Chrissie Hynde’s admirable ‘advice to chick rockers which sums things up pretty well (for the record its “Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f*ckable will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not ‘F*ck me,’ it’s ‘F*ck you!’”), but, sadly, I can’t because this is the BBC – but I can quote Beth Ditto – who is riffing on Mahatma Gandhi, as you do…‘if you don’t see it, create it. If you don’t see what you want, be the change you want to see’. Or hear in this case…Because the silence of the women is a symptom of a much wider malaise that stifles female creativity from cradle to grave – so, why not get on to Radio 3, call in to Classic FM, let’s do it for Francesca and Barbara, for Chrissie and Beth – let’s escape or embrace the shadow of the courtesan, and make hearing women’s music the new normal.


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.

Post Navigation