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Forgotten Fanny Hensel

Fanny Hensel was unfortunate to live in the nineteenth century, at a time when social conventions dictated that women did not need much of an education, and that their energies were best channeled into home-making activities instead of being wasted on artistic activities. And even when women were allowed to indulge in the arts, these were perceived as frivolous dalliances that would never among to anything. After all, publishers at the time would have never considered work by women. Nor would concert promoters headline a female performer. And so Fanny Hensel found her creative drive limited by social convention and opportunity, and she only practised the art of composing and performing her own songs within a small group of family and friends.

Fanny Hensel's talents at the piano hence lay undiscovered outside the boundaries of family and inner circles, but retrospective examination of diaries and letters of her family and friends revealed her to be an accomplished pianist. Her pianism was reported to be at the same level as other virtuoso players at the time, and she often performed large portions of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory.

To be fair though, her father Abraham had allowed her the luxury and the space to practise her music, both in performing and composing. In a way, she was fortunate that music was in her household, unlike the composer Leonard Bernstein, whose musical path was shaped by a chance encounter with a piano at the age of ten that his aunt had sent to his house for storage. (The aunt was going through a marital separation). And it is certain that Fanny had a kinder childhood than Ludwig van Beethoven, whose formative years were shaped by difficulty. As Fanny turned eleven, however, Abraham instructed her to produce more modest pieces and songs, which would be more associated with domestic life, instead of harbouring ambitions for larger works which required more musicians and public performances which might never materialise. Perhaps Abraham was being pragmatic in seeking to reconcile his daughter's creative compositional output with the practicalities of life. Society had not yet changed enough to allow public performances of women's works. But within the family, the inner circle, Fanny could perform her works and see them to fruition. And so much of Fanny Hensel's 450 works are songs and piano pieces, smaller scale works which could be performed easily.

But it is also fair to say that perhaps Abraham had one eye on his daughter's future as well. In somewhat curtailing her ambitions to write bigger works, he prevented her from putting off prospective suitors. Which prospective husband at the time would have dared married her if he faced being socially dwarfed by her achievements, and being known to others as Fanny's husband?

But it wasn't just the patriachal society that hindered Fanny Hensel. Women in arts were still a relatively new phenomenon, and even those who were spearheading the revolution doubted themselves from time to time. Clara Schumann, a pioneering performer, said of her own Piano Trio that "it has nice passages, but naturally it is still women's work, which always lacks force and occasionally invention". And Mary Ann Evans, writing under the pseudonym of George Eliot, remarked that "our own feminine literature is made up of books which could have been written by men."

Hensel lived with her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, in Berlin, and while her output was primarily piano music and songs, occasionally she ventured further to string quartets and cantatas. She also wrote a piano cycle Das Jahr, which is an autobiographical calendar of the months of the year on the scale of the piano cycles of Robert Schumann (again, we are making the error of comparing her work as equitable to a male composer's). The popularity of her works can also be gleaned from the increasing numbers that are being recorded by artistes. And while in her lifetime, outside the circle of family and friends, Fanny Hensel and her compositions would always live in the shadow of her more famous brother, changes in society towards the working role of women, as well as more recent feminist movements, have elevated her to merit in her own right, rather than merely to be known as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

I am a piano teacher and give lessons around Crouch End, Stroud Green or Hornsey. If you would like piano lessons at your home, or remotely, please click here: Piano Teacher Crouch End N8