Fanny the Other Mendelssohn
Composers,  Films

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Legacy Unveiled: New Documentary Explores the Life of a Pioneering Composer

Composer and pianist Fanny Mendelssohn, a luminary of the 19th century, is finally stepping out from the shadows of her more renowned brother, Felix. In a groundbreaking documentary, Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, her extraordinary life, musical contributions, and enduring legacy come to life through her own words. Directed by her great-great-great-granddaughter, Sheila Hayman, and featuring pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, the film provides a fresh perspective on Fanny’s formidable journey.

Also featured in the documentary are my former colleagues from my time as a curator at Duke, Professor R. Larry Todd, and Dr. Angela Mace, who, as a graduate student, discovered an autograph manuscript that proved the Easter Sonata, long attributed to Felix, was actually composed by Fanny.

Rediscovering a Musical Trailblazer

Born in 1805, Fanny faced societal constraints limiting women’s musical pursuits. Societal norms discouraged her from playing some instruments and pursuing a musical career despite her undeniable talent. Now, two centuries later, Fanny’s music is experiencing a renaissance, with ongoing efforts to uncover her extensive catalog of over 460 works.

Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn – A Personal Chronicle

Directed by Sheila Hayman, Fanny’s great-great-great-granddaughter, the documentary delves into the composer’s life through intimate accounts. Sheila stumbled upon the idea while researching the Mendelssohn family, discovering firsthand descriptions by Fanny’s son, Sebastian Hensel, which brought to life Fanny. The film unveils Fanny’s wit, her aversion to social gatherings, and her complex relationship with her brother Felix.

A Composer’s Struggle

Fanny began composing and performing at a young age but hesitated to publish her work under her name until her late 30s. Hindered by societal norms, lack of access to publishers, and her brother’s disapproval, she navigated a delicate balance between family expectations and her artistic aspirations.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1842, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1842, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.

Legacy in Composition

While Fanny didn’t produce large-scale symphonies or operas, she left an indelible mark with over 460 works, including piano and voice compositions, lieder, choral cantatas, a piano trio, and a piano quartet. Director Sheila Hayman emphasizes that Fanny’s avoidance of composing some genres of music didn’t diminish her seriousness as a composer.

A Formidable Woman’s Dilemma

The documentary paints Fanny as a formidable musician who faced conflicting desires—her passion for music and her commitment to family. Terrified of her brother Felix’s opinion, she strove to balance her creative pursuits with societal expectations. Despite her brilliance, Fanny grappled with the desire to see her music flourish and her family thrive.

Unveiling Fanny’s Easter Sonata

The film also follows Dr. Angela Mace’s quest to prove Fanny’s authorship of the Easter Sonata, a significant piano work wrongly attributed to Felix. Through meticulous research, Dr. Mace definitively established Fanny as the actual composer, overturning a 150-year misattribution.

Musical Resurgence

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, star of the documentary, performs Fanny’s works, including the ‘Easter Sonata.’ The film captures her journey of discovery, highlighting the power and intensity with which she interprets Fanny’s compositions.

Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn is a poignant tribute to a woman who defied societal norms, leaving behind a musical legacy that is now being rightfully celebrated. As we delve into the life of this extraordinary composer, we gain a deeper appreciation for her resilience, talent, and indomitable spirit that has finally found its voice.

Source: Classic FM by Siena Linton, 31 October 2023

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Brenda Neece, DPhil (Oxon), is a cellist, organologist, writer, and teacher specializing in the history of the cello.