Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Byr. Poetzelberger, 1888 (Image credit: Bettmann)

In the family

A rare contrast of composers

Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week


It’s not often one gets a chance to compare two composers who are brother and sister. In fact, apart from the Mendelssohns, there is hardly another instance except Mozart and his inauspicious sister, Nannerl. In the Mendelssohn family, Fanny was the first to show talent, only to be silenced by her father once young Felix displayed a boyish genius that many likened to Mozart’s. Fanny went off, got married, acted as family conscience and shocked Felix by taking up composing again in her thirties.

Fanny’s songs are written for herself and the drawing room

The works on these two albums are disparate in tone and intent. Felix’s psalms, sung by the Leipzig radio choir under Philipp Ahmann, are public declamations for divine worship. Formal and easily singable, they suffer from the self-restraint a devout person feels when addressing the Creator. Mendelssohn is out to impress the worshipful bourgeoisie, and he succeeds, more or less. Nowhere, however, in this compilation does one feel the spark of Felix on fire.

Fanny’s songs are written for herself and the drawing room. Most have only recently come to light. Half of the songs here are premiere recordings. Without needing to impose or impress, Fanny’s songs have a delicate patina, at times introspective, always insistently communicative. Five are titled “Sehnsucht or “longing”, clearly an expression of repressed hopes, romantic or vocational.

Three English singers — Tim Parker-Langston, Stephanie Wake-Edwards and Jennifer Parker — recorded them early this year in the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig on what sounds like a period piano. The singing is admirable, the ambience exceptional. My only gripe is that the composer is titled on the cover by her married name “Fanny Hensel”, rather than a Mendelssohn, or Mendelssohn-Hensel. Fanny, a much stronger character than her brother, was just beginning to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing her first works in print when she died of a stroke, aged 42. Felix, inconsolable, followed her within a year. I write more of their unusual relationship in my book, Genius and Anxiety.

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