Music

Who is composer Fanny Mendelssohn? The musical sister finally being given her due

A new musical tells the story of a composer overshadowed by her famous brother

Charlie Russell conducts her imaginary ensemble as Fanny Mendelssohn. Image: Pamela Raith

Like most freelance writers, I dabble in the odd spot of ghost writing. Without wishing to open the factory door, this involves preparing drafts that may – or, most likely, may not – be tweaked by the individual you are impersonating, which are then published in their name. It can be strange seeing your words under different authorship, but that is all part of the deal. It is quite another experience to have your work attributed to someone else without your permission, as was the case for many composers. 

Among the most notable instances of mistaken identity is that of a song admired by Queen Victoria. The score bore the name of one of her favourite composers, Felix Mendelssohn; in fact, the work was created by his sister, Fanny. We’re still discovering that music we assumed to be by Felix was Fanny’s, who was forced to cover up compositional activity due to societal expectations. Much of the lesser-heard Mendelssohn’s manuscripts remain unpublished. 

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Without access to the orchestral forces available to Felix, Fanny focused on pieces for piano and voice. But a new play, recently premiered at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, imagines what might have happened if she had been able to compose on a larger scale – and perform her own music to Queen Victoria directly. 

Fanny, by Calum Finlay, is written in a similar vein to Six, the musical that reclaims the ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ story of Henry VIII’s six wives. As Fanny, Charlie Russell raises her arms towards to audience, conducting an imaginary ensemble. The music she hears is largely in her head, except for the witty interludes created by the play’s music director Yshani Perinpanayagam. 

The inclusion of another Mendelssohn sibling, Paul, diffuses the intensity between Felix and Fanny, and their mother Lea, who is given the dubious responsibility of the line: “Music for you must only be an ornament.” (In reality, it was Fanny’s father who said this in a letter to his daughter in 1828.) Finlay packs the script with puns, referencing Fanny’s husband Wilhelm Hensel’s love of wordplay. These include an inevitable – but brilliant – joke about Fanny’s name. 

A more realistic version of Fanny’s career is presented in Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, a new film by Sheila Hayman, the composer’s great-great-great-granddaughter. The documentary focuses on the Easter Sonata, presumed to be a lost Felix masterpiece and recorded in 1971 by Éric Heidsieck. 

However, scholars have since been able to prove – through some Sherlockian research – the work, performed in the film by pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (see recording of the week), is by Fanny.  

A cursory glance at concert programmes today might suggest that justice has been served. Depending on who you ask, some people may even claim that the weighting is now towards female composers, marginalising their male counterparts. Clara Schumann, Imogen Holst and Ethel Smyth are among the historic women receiving a belated revival, and Judith Weir, Caroline Shaw and Roxanna Panufnik are just three contemporary composers celebrated today. 

But a new report by Donne, Women in Music, reveals the true picture. A study of 16,327 compositions scheduled for performance in the 2023-24 season showed that only 7.5% of works were composed by women, from 7.7% in the 2021-22 season. 

Shortly after attending the play, I visit a music-themed hotel. A colleague heads to the opera floor and checks in to the Berlioz room. On the classical music level, Beethoven and Bach smile down in caricature form. I head to my room, which honours Mendelssohn – Felix, of course. Fanny is nowhere to be seen.

Recording of the week

Following her role in Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, Isata Kanneh-Mason has recorded Fanny’s Easter Sonata, the work previously attributed to Felix. It features on her fourth album, Mendelssohn, which pairs music by the siblings, including Felix’s Piano Concerto No 1 and Fanny’s Notturno in G minor. As a member of one of the UK’s most prominent musical families, Kanneh-Mason understands the musical connection between brother and sister; this varied record celebrates the two composers as equals.

Mendelssohn by Isata Kanneh-Mason is out now (Decca Classics, £11.99)

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

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