A Tale of Two Prodigies: Fanny and Felix
By Anne-Marie Levine
People have always been drawn to the idea of a child, a miniature person, performing at an adult level. The preternaturally gifted child becomes a small-scale replica of an adult, with the skill and power to gain the respect and attention of adult society.
From the child prodigy’s point of view, however, the situation appears otherwise. Freud wrote in Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming that child’s play is related to the wish to be grown up. According to psychoanalyst Alexander Stein, “This is the crux of the special developmental difficulties of the precociously masterful child: The play of being big—of having achieved an adult-like, indeed a larger-than life-like, level of accomplishment—is acknowledged by the adults as both real and desirable. The fantasy is ratified as reality; childhood is for all intents and purposes vanquished and prematurely supplanted by a faux adulthood.”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the focus of several CEWM concerts this season, was a prodigy comparable only to Mozart. A person of any age endowed with extraordinary powers or gifts arouses admiration and awe. But when genius appears in a child, we are touched in a different way: we become fascinated, almost viscerally intent. Perhaps the voyeur in us is released, as it may be in the presence of miniatures of any sort, object or person, precisely because of their small size. We applaud children who behave as adults, and the child is robbed of his or her childhood.
Difficulties often ensue as normal development is impaired. Felix Mendelssohn, however, seems to have had a sunny disposition, a perfect childhood, optimal opportunity to develop his gifts, and recognition and appreciation of his accomplishments throughout his life. His music is not the product of distress—he was not touched by poverty, ill-health, neglect, betrayal— and he seems to have been remarkably un-neurotic. His music may be said to reflect his circumstances and disposition.
The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians appeared in 1880. Sir George Grove himself wrote the entry on Felix: “It is well in these agitated modern days to be able to point to one perfectly balanced nature, in whose life, whose letters, and whose music alike, all is at once manly and refined, clever and pure, brilliant and solid. For the enjoyment of such shining heights of goodness we may well forego for once the depths of misery and sorrow.”
There is no entry for his sister Fanny (1805- 1847) who was, from all contemporary accounts, an equally precocious, prodigiously gifted child, and whose natural development as a composer and pianist was first nourished, then hindered, perhaps even aborted by her father and culture, by her gender and class, and eventually by her unexpected, early demise.
Felix and Fanny had excellent parents, and both led productive and loving lives. They received the same education and had the same opportunities to develop their gifts at home, studying music as well as reading Goethe and Shakespeare together. Schumann and Wagner were said to be envious of the education Abraham Mendelssohn provided and carefully supervised for his children. It’s worth mentioning in this context that they were the grandchildren of the liberal Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who, as a result of his wide ranging learning, became an early advocate of religious tolerance and assimilation, convinced that modern Judaism could co-exist with German philosophy. Fanny was also acknowledged to be a prodigy, displaying her pianistic and compositional abilities at the celebrated Sunday musicales held at the Mendelssohn home and receiving equal billing, as well as praise, alongside Felix. At thirteen, she performed an entire volume of preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier as a surprise for her father. Her musical accomplishments were lauded by such masters as Gounod, Moscheles, and Hiller.
For her fifteenth birthday, however, she received the following letter from her father: “What you wrote to me in one of your earlier letters concerning your musical activities in relation to Felix was as well thought out as expressed. Perhaps for him music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but an ornament: never can nor should it become the foundation of your existence and daily life . . . you have proved by your joy in the acclaim which he has won for himself, that in his situation you would be able to earn the same for yourself. Remain fast in this conviction and conduct, they are feminine and only the feminine ornaments women.”
Having received an enviable education, and having had the opportunity to perform at home musicales for audiences that included Paganini, Weber, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Ingres, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heine, Goethe, and Hegel, Fanny’s ambitions suddenly hit a wall. Educated women were the norm in the Mendelssohn family. The fruits of women’s learning and labor, however, were to remain within the precincts of family. Public displays of talent or erudition, including publication, were forbidden.
Felix’s reputation, on the other hand, was allowed to build, attain a public audience, and encompass large musical forms. His credentials as a musical child prodigy include the composition of the Octet when he was sixteen, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture at seventeen.
Her audience and resources confined to the home, Fanny mastered small forms such as Lieder and piano pieces, struggling to reconcile her musical and intellectual gifts and ambitions with her desire to please and obey her father, her brother, and the dictates of her social position.
Was this the fate of all gifted women of the time? Not necessarily. Clara Wieck Schumann was also a child prodigy and composer, and the wife of Robert Schumann. Her ambitious father guided her to an illustrious European career that enabled her to support her family. The difference between Clara and Fanny lay in their social backgrounds. Clara Schumann was from the middle class, and within her family’s values it was acceptable for her to concertise, publish and be paid for her work. Fanny was from the upper class, the daughter of one of Europe’s wealthiest bankers. A 19th-century British critic, Henry F. Chorley wrote, “Had Madame Hensel [Fanny’s married name] been a poor man’s daughter, she must have become known to the world by the side of Madame Schumann and Madame Pleyel, as a female pianist of the very highest class.” But Fanny’s social position made it more acceptable for her, as a woman, to host a salon, as did Rahel Levin Varnhagen and her father’s sister, Dorothea Veit Schlegel, than to be a public performer and published composer.
Meanwhile, Felix—a rich man’s son—went on to initiate the Bach revival and revitalize the oratorio form and was among the first conductors to adopt the baton and practice the art of conducting as an independent discipline. He remained a prodigiously accomplished pianist and organist all his life, during which he was regarded as the most important German composer of the 1830s and 40s.
Fanny had a happy marriage with the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to work and publish. After bearing a child, she wrote:“My own and Hensel’s enjoyment in the thing [music] prevents me from totally dying away, and that I persevere through such a complete absence of incentive from outside, I interpret to myself once more as an indication of talent.”
But an artist confined to the home, deprived of dialogue with the world and the stimulation and motivation that comes from that give and take, will either stop working, or the work she produces will reflect her internal and external constraints.
Towards the end of her life, she traveled with her husband to Italy, where she found herself much appreciated in professional musical circles—the very encouragement she needed to resume her career. She wrote: ‘I also compose a great deal now, for nothing inspires me like praise, whilst censure discourages and depresses me.” At the age of forty, after her father’s death, and despite Felix’s lack of support, she started publishing her work and began to get noticed and reviewed. Unfortunately, she did not live to experience the gratification—or unease—of her courageous entrance into the world, because she died unexpectedly in May 1847 of a stroke. She was forty-one. Felix, thirty-eight, collapsed on hearing the news and died himself six months later.
Ironically, her posthumous reputation did not suffer the same indignities as that of her more popular prodigy brother. His reputation, after his death, received a near fatal blow from Wagner’s initially anonymous anti-Semitic tirade, “Judaism in Music” (Das Judenthum in der Musik) in 1850; and another, near the turn of the century, from, for example, George Bernard Shaw, who accused Mendelssohn of “kid glove gentility” and Aubrey Beardsley, who caricatured him as feminine. In the 1930s the Nazis banned Felix Mendelssohn’s music, and on November 9, 1936, they destroyed his statue in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and replaced it with flowerbeds. And at the end of 1938, the Nazis liquidated the Mendelssohn family banking house. Felix’s reputation, however prodigious, has never fully recovered.
Anne-Marie Levine is a poet and artist specializing in box art, miniature painting on wood, and digital art. Author of two collections of poem, she is a former piano student of Sascha Gorodnitzki in New York and toured as a concert pianist.