Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
by Mimi Morris Kim
The first time I performed the Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) String Quartet in Eb with the Fairmount String Quartet, we performed it alongside her more famous brother Felix’s brilliant quartet in D major. I was a little worried that Hensel’s quartet would suffer by comparison. Felix’s is a virtuosic romp. The writing is facile and flashy and very idiomatic to the instruments, so easier to play than it sounds. Fanny’s is weirder. Emotionally fraught and almost grotesque at times it can seem unwieldy as a performer in both its emotional directness and its technical demands. Yet after the performance, audience member after audience member told us how they were affected by it, how it spoke to them.
Mendelssohn Hensel’s music was generally not written for publication. That would have been unseemly for a woman of her social stature. This quartet received only one performance in her lifetime in a private family salon concert. Unlike her brother, she was not writing for the musical world. She was not writing for the academy. Instead, this work is a more personal and direct expression of a remarkable woman. As I performed and recorded it, I could sense the volatile emotions that must have been very close to the surface in a woman whose monumental talent was always pushed aside in favor of her little brother. Fanny did not have to write to the tastes of the public. She wrote for herself and we, nearly 200 years later are the lucky beneficiaries of her expression. Interestingly, both of the Mendelssohns described their fascination with the late Beethoven quartets and cite them as the inspiration for their quartet writing. At least to me, it seems that Fanny gets closer to the interior and forceful world of Beethoven. But maybe we shouldn’t compare her to any male composers. She was enough. More than enough.