‘Become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly form your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife’. Those were the words of Abraham Mendelssohn to his daughter Fanny on her 23rd
birthday. To present day readers this seems a horrible remark, but in 1828 this was an accepted attitude; Women’s Lib was far off. The following year Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel and a year later she gave birth to their son Sebastian. But she never conformed completely to the role of housewife and mother. She had been lucky to get a thorough musical training, together with her brother and she had composed more than 200 pieces – mainly songs and piano works – before she married. And she continued to compose even then. She championed Bach’s music and was the one who introduced the young Charles Gounod to Bach’s keyboard works. A year before her untimely death she also published the Six Songs Op. 1. Her total oeuvre encompasses 466 titles, the last, the song Bergeslust
, completed the day before she died from a stroke. Among her compositions there is also an orchestral work, an overture from 1832. I heard it a couple of years back played by the Dala Sinfonietta under Bjarte Engeset. It is a fine work, excellently crafted and expertly orchestrated. She also wrote some chamber music.
Some of her songs were published under her brother’s name, which shows that he held her in high esteem as a composer. Her discriminating choice of poetry may be one of the secrets behind her inspired settings: Heine, Goethe, Eichendorff, Geibel, Rückert and Lenau were frequently set during the 19th
century, as much for the musical qualities of their verses as for their actual literary value.
The six songs op. 1 had a mixed reception when they were published and though they are attractive enough I get the feeling that the inspiration flowed more bountifully in the op. 7 set. Frühling
(tr. 9), bustling eagerly and with an expressive accompaniment, is a great composition and the setting of Rückert’s Du bist die Ruh
has a beauty that in no way puts it in the shade of Schubert’s more well known example. Dein ist mein Herz
(Lenau) is also a wholly delightful piece with an individual and crisply expressive piano part.
Among the five songs op. 10 Nach Süden
is a gem, jubilant and exuberant, and Bergeslust
, her last composition, is also a masterpiece. The Eichendorff setting Im Herbst
with its darkly poignant accompaniment also stands out, as does the strong and energetic Könnt ich zu den Wäldern flüchten.
But there is a lot to admire in all these songs and I am eagerly looking forward to hearing the next volume in this series.
I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the singing of Dorothea Craxton in a previous issue, the songs of Clara Schumann. Basically she has a beautiful voice, sings with care for the text and phrases sensitively. The hang-up – and for me it is a serious one – is the voice-production with its ‘hooting’ sounds – sliding up to and sometimes down to notes – which sometimes gives the impression that she is off-pitch. It’s a pity, since so much is so good. Still I find her more acceptable here than on the Schumann disc – or maybe it’s an acquired taste.
She has an excellent pianist and the recording is exceptionally fine with an ideal balance between voice and piano. Wary readers are advised to listen before buying to find out whether they share my hang-up or not. Go to www.naxos.com
to hear snippets from each track.