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Fanny HenselThe Other Mendelssohn$

R. Larry Todd

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195180800

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195180800.001.0001

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Fugal Fingers (1805–1818)

Fugal Fingers (1805–1818)

(p.2) (p.3) Chapter 1 Fugal Fingers (1805–1818)
Fanny Hensel

R. Larry Todd

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Little is known about Fanny Hensel's early years in Hamburg. The first notice about her is a letter, written by Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy to his mother-in-law the day after Fanny's birth, reporting the difficulties of Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy's labor but also her prophetic maternal observation—their daughter had “Bach fugal fingers”. Some three years later, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's arrival in February 1809, prompted more comparisons: the son, Lea informed her Viennese cousin Henriette von Pereira Arnstein, promised to be “more pretty” than Fanny, an allusion to a slight orthopedic deformity inherited from her grandfather Moses Mendelssohn. At age three and a half, she was reading her letters plainly and purposefully fabricating phrases with clarity and coherence. At age six, Fanny was innocent enough of these worldly affairs, though she evidently was beginning to correspond with her aunt Henriette in Paris, who described the child's writing as “really the second edition of all the maternal talent”.

Keywords:   Fanny Hensel, Hamburg, Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, fugal fingers, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Henriette von Pereira Arnstein, Moses Mendelssohn

There are in all religions only one God, one virtue, one truth, one happiness. You will find all this, if you follow the voice of your heart; live so that it be ever in harmony with the voice of your reason.

—Abraham to Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy, April 5, 1819

September 1805—Europe was again at war. Less than a year before, at a coronation validating an imperial reign through contrived analogies to Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon had stirred crepuscular memories of the old Frankish dynasty. Now England joined Austria, Russia, and Sweden in a third coalition to oppose French expansionism. To answer, the selfproclaimed emperor dispersed the army massed at Boulogne in preparation— whether feigned or not, historians would debate—for invading England. After forced marches, some 200,000 troops, divided into seven corps to facilitate lightning-like advances, crossed the Rhine near Strasbourg and reconstituted, an imposing spectacle of uniforms and accoutrements—blue-coated chasseurs in kolbachs; carabineers with red-plumed headgear; grenadiers with tall bearskins; lancers and hussars in plumed shakos; green-coated dragoons with tigerskin turbans; cuirassiers with gleaming metal breastplates and helmets; and horse artillerists in dark-blue uniforms trimmed in red. Allied with the French were Italian conscripts, Germans from Bavaria and Württemberg, Dutch from the Batavian Republic, and a company of exotically clad Egyptian Mamelukes (p.4) astride Arabian horses. Seerlike, Napoleon predicted his forces had already won the campaign with their legs.

Hastening to engage General Mack's Austrian army before Russian reinforcements could arrive, the French wheeled south and, maneuvering deftly, enveloped the enemy, forcing them to surrender without resistance at Ulm on October 20. Though war's fortunes shifted momentarily as word came of the crippling defeat of the French fleet at Gibraltar, the grande armée now yearned for future glory. Vienna was defenseless, and on November 14, 1805, Napoleon established his headquarters at Schönbrunn, one day after the French vanguard marched into the Imperial City, with battle flags unfurled and ceremonial music sounding. Within a week, French officers were attending at an eerily half-empty Theater an der Wien the premiere of Beethoven's rescue opera Fidelio, based upon a French libretto and resonating, ironically enough, with the republican theme of freedom from tyranny. Only days before, the straggling remnants of the Austrian nobility, including the empress and several of Beethoven's patrons, had fled—no more, according to Napoleon's estimate, than 10,000 aristocrats among the general population of 250,000.1

As these dramatic world events were playing out, in the “free” city of Hamburg Fanny Mendelssohn was born at 6:30 A.M. on November 14, the very day of Napoleon's triumphant entry into Vienna. She was the first of four children of Abraham (1776–1835) and Lea (1777–1842) Mendelssohn. In December 1804 they had married in Berlin, where Abraham founded with his elder brother, Joseph, a banking firm destined to become a thriving nineteenth-century German financial house. Renamed in 1805 Gebrüder Mendelssohn & Co., the firm expanded to accommodate a second branch in Hamburg, where the brothers resettled with their families. Their primary residence was a three-story edifice, no longer extant, on Grosse Michaelisstrasse (no. 14), not far from the Mendelssohn business (no. 71a) and just behind the Michaeliskirche (St. Michael's Church), in the vault of which Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had been laid to rest in 1788. Consecrated in 1661 and rebuilt in the eighteenth century, this landmark afforded commanding views of the city from its tower; still, in 1820 St. Michael's impressed one English traveler as a “second rate building, in which all the faults of Italian architecture” were “carried to a ridiculous excess.”2

Grosse Michaelisstrasse no. 14, which Abraham and Lea shared with Joseph, his wife Henriette, and their two sons, offered somewhat cramped surroundings for Lea, who was accustomed to considerably more commodious quarters in Berlin. The residence would be the birthplace of two of Fanny's siblings, Felix (1809–1847) and Rebecka (1811–1858), and of the violinist- composer Ferdinand David, who later became the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Felix's baton. In 1869 the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind installed a marble tablet above the doorway to commemorate the celebrity (p.5) among the Mendelssohn siblings—Felix—though at the time, no recognition of Fanny was made.3 There the marker remained until its removal in 1936 by the Nazis, who were intent upon blotting out traces of the Mendelssohns in German culture and finance.


Joseph and Abraham Mendelssohn were two of six surviving children of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), the eminent Jewish philosopher-belletrist who in 1743 had followed his rabbi to Berlin from the ghetto of Dessau, capital of the small duchy of Anhalt-Dessau some eighty miles to the southwest. At that time, the Prussian state rigorously controlled the Jewish population, denied it citizenship, and compelled it to pay onerous concessions in exchange for the right to coexist in the capital. A few years before, in 1737, the elector Frederick William I had expelled more than half of the Jewish families. Those who remained, tolerated because of their wealth, soon experienced the discriminatory preferences of a new monarch, Frederick the Great, who acceded to the throne in 1740 and regimented his Jewish subjects into six categories. At the apex of this social pyramid were a few unusually prosperous families, dominated by a handful of bankers and minters who financed Frederick's military campaigns and received special dispensations as “protected Jews” (Schutzjuden). At the base were common laborers, permitted to remain so long as they were employed or sponsored. Moses fell into this latter category, as he paid a toll to enter Berlin through the Rosenthaler Thor, the only gate through which he could legally pass.

Short in stature, disfigured by a hunchback, and prone to stuttering, Moses worked as a tutor and bookkeeper before he became a partner of a prosperous silk manufacturer. His impressive intellectual gifts—Moses was a Talmudic scholar and polyglot who valued mathematics as “the best exercise in rigorous thinking”4—facilitated an intimate friendship with the playwright-critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the colleagueship of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. A disciplined autodidact, Moses rose from obscurity to become an eloquent spokesman for the German Enlightenment. His writings, including Phaedon (1767), a modern gloss on Plato's dialogue about the immortality of the soul, and Jerusalem (1783), a spirited defense of religious tolerance, reached broad audiences, and turned le juif Moses into an improbable international celebrity, a distinction attained by few earlier Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides in the twelfth century and Spinoza in the seventeenth. Moses Mendelssohn's son Joseph later contextualized his father's achievement thus: “That a living Jew could write German philosophical tracts, in a classical style surpassing in clarity and elegance everything previously published in Germany— this phenomenon was completely new.”5

(p.6) Resting his faith squarely on reason, Moses became a beacon of enlightened thought. Optimistically promoting the assimilation of German Jewry into the Prussian state, he believed that without forsaking Judaism his coreligionists might yet grasp the elusive goal of emancipation by adopting modern German language, dress, and manners. To that end, he translated the Psalms and Pentateuch into German, and thereby sought to strengthen the dual identities of German Jews, who for centuries had preserved their minority culture as a separate “nation” within a nation. If Orthodox Jews viewed Moses's work as sacrilegious—some rabbis banned the translations as heresy (Ketzerei) and inveighed against “newcomers” who learned German6—influential Christian writers probed a different extreme.

The Swiss mystic chiliast Johann Caspar Lavater, for instance, compared Moses to Nathaniel, recognized by Jesus as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). Imagining that the mass apostasy of Jews would presage the Second Coming of Christ, Lavater called upon Moses to convert and resorted to the pseudoscience of physiognomy to fuel his proselytizing zeal. For Lavater, Moses possessed a radiant soul within an Aesopian casing; his silhouette projected a noble forehead, his eyes a Socratic depth—traits desirable enough for a convert. But Lavater's enthusiasm prompted Moses to reaffirm his Jewish faith. Still, after the philosopher's death in 1786, Lavater persisted in pondering the silhouette: “Yes, I see him, Abraham's son, who—together with Plato and Moses—will surely recognize and worship the crucified Lord of Splendor!”7 Lavater was not the last to seek to integrate members of the Mendelssohn family into mainstream German culture, a process that would affect directly the lives of Moses's children and grandchildren, including Fanny Hensel.

If Fanny's paternal grandfather overcame considerable barriers to achieve international renown as the German Socrates, her maternal relatives enjoyed lifestyles of ease and luxury. In 1755 her great-grandfather, Daniel Itzig (1723–1799), won the lease of the Prussian state mints and began profiting handsomely from coining currency, much of it evidently adulterated with impure alloys. By 1761, he was one of few Berlin Jews granted the “general privilege”; eventually, the monarch Frederick William II conferred on Itzig's family the rights of Christian citizenship. This extraordinary status further consolidated Itzig's fortune, recently estimated as equivalent to some ten million euros.8 He purchased several exclusive Berlin properties—a mansion overlooking the Spree River, a house near the Royal Palace, and the Bartholdy Meierei, a summer country estate near the Schlesisches Thor (Fanny's family would later add Bartholdy as a second surname). Itzig also acquired the Luisenhof, also near the Schlesisches Thor but within the city walls.9 Its celebrated garden in Dutch style was landscaped by the royal gardener and contained an open-air theater adorned with sculptures of subjects drawn from Greek mythology. The garden was a favorite haunt of Fanny's mother, Lea Salomon, who later (p.7) recalled her childhood, passed in its “comfortable little country house, buried in vines, mulberry and peach trees,” in which she occupied a “neat but very simple little room with my piano, bookcase, and desk as furniture. …Here my feelings developed, here my youthful mind ripened,…here I read my favorite poets with a higher enjoyment,…and I even fancy that the weak notes my unskilled fingers produced [were] here more melodious and pure.”10

The sparse accounts we have of Lea's youth testify to her cultured mind and intellectual acumen. Fanny's son, Sebastian Hensel, preserved some reminiscences by a family friend, among which we read: “Lea was not handsome, but her eloquent black eyes, her sylph-like figure, her gentle, modest behavior, and the power of her lively conversation, full of accurate judgment and striking but never malicious wit, made her most attractive. She was acquainted with every branch of fashionable information; she played and sang with expression and grace, but seldom, and only for her friends; she drew exquisitely; she spoke and read French, English, Italian, and—secretly— Homer, in the original language. …Her taste, formed by the classic authors of so many languages, was exact and refined, but she seldom ventured to pass a judgment.”11 Nevertheless, later in life her intellect and bearing made quite an impression; in 1875, the physician G. F. L. Stromeyer recalled that she had such “sharp features” (scharfe Züge) that “initially one stood in fear of her” (figure 1.1).12

According to the music theorist A. B. Marx, Lea “had made the acquaintance of Sebastian Bach's music, and in her home she perpetuated his tradition by continually playing the Well-Tempered Clavier.”13 Musically Lea was quite sophisticated. The mother of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Amalie Beer, found that Lea possessed “much musical knowledge,”14 and Marx detected in her resonances of Johann Philipp Kirnberger, the bookish music theorist employed by the Prussian princess Anna Amalia with whom Moses Mendelssohn had had some lessons. In a formidable treatise, The Art of Pure Composition (Die Kunst des reinen Satzes, 1771–1777), Kirnberger had summarized the didactic method of his own teacher, none other than J. S. Bach. Lea was only six years old when Kirnberger died, so it is unlikely that she studied with him. Still, she must have been familiar with his writings, including some elucidations of Bach's fugues, which were of consequence for Fanny's and Felix's musical studies. And Lea's playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier familiarized her children with the complexities of Bach's music, at a time when the Thomaskantor's historical significance was not at all widely appreciated, even within German realms, where only a handful of connoisseurs perused his ineffable scores.

If Lea was a musician of some accomplishment, Abraham was a dilettantish music lover, albeit a discriminating one (figure 1.2). In a self-effacing witticism, he described himself as formerly the son of his father and then the father of his son, as if to minimize his role to that of a hyphen linking two (p.8)

                   Fugal Fingers (1805–1818)

figure 1.1. Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy, pencil drawing by Wilhelm Hensel, 1823 (Berlin, Mendelssohn Archiv, BA 2)

greater intellects, and to confirm Samuel Butler's observation that often the grandfather's spirit is “refreshed by repose so as to be ready for fresh exertion in the grandson.”15 Still, Sebastian Hensel maintained that Abraham was a “vigorous character” who “had nothing of the epigone in him”;16 like the madcap Mr. Shandy in Lawrence Sterne's Tristam Shandy, partial not to repose but to disputing, Abraham willingly defended weak fortresses.17

As a young man, Abraham spent his early career in Paris, where he lived and worked for several years between 1797 and 1804 as a bank clerk at Fould, Oppenheim & Co. En route to France, Abraham had paused in Weimar to meet Goethe, who asked if he were a “son of Mendelssohn,” the first time, Abraham later recalled gratefully, that he had heard his father's name mentioned “without an epithet.”18 Much of Abraham's Parisian sojourn coincided (p.9)

                   Fugal Fingers (1805–1818)

figure 1.2. Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, pencil drawing by Wilhelm Hensel, 1829 (Berlin, Mendelssohn Archiv, 408)

with Napoleon's consulate, a period that reaffirmed the egalitarian principles of the revolution, including religious tolerance, and enacted the Civil Code. In 1791, French Jews had received the right of citizenship, and after observing firsthand this measure of civic freedom—in Prussia, citizenship was not bestowed upon Jews as a class until 1812—Abraham became an ardent Francophile. Thus, he was quite content to eat dry Parisian bread (manger du pain sec à Paris),19 and to develop his refined taste for the neoclassical operas of Gluck and the more contemporary fare of Cherubini, until his sister Henriette introduced him to Lea Salomon, prompting him to return to Berlin. The new Mendelssohn bank found a financial supporter in Lea's mother, Bella Salomon, willing to commit her daughter's dowry to the venture, but (p.10) otherwise hesitant to embrace Lea's marriage to a modest bank clerk, albeit a son of Moses Mendelssohn.


Of Fanny's other relatives, four women in particular merit attention for their musical and literary interests. Three were maternal great-aunts; one, a paternal aunt. The sturdy nonagenarian Sarah Itzig Levy (1761–1854), sister of Lea's mother, married the banker Solomon Levy in 1783 and maintained a vibrant musical salon in Berlin from 1800. Her habitués included Fanny and Felix's future composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the poetess Bettina Brentano, philosopher J. G. Fichte, theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and writers E. T. A. Hoffmann and Fanny Lewald. The lastnamed found in Sarah “a rather unbecoming masculine aspect,”20 a reaction either to her homely appearance—unlike the sylphish Lea, Sarah was physically unattractive and habitually squinted from astigmatism—or her fascination with the cerebral music of the Bachs, a curiosity not associated with ladies of leisure, whom society generally encouraged to pursue relatively undemanding songs or keyboard pieces.

Composers no less than Mozart and Haydn visited Sarah, though her chief musical devotion seems to have been to the instrumental scores of the Bach family. She nourished relationships with two of Bach's sons—W. F. Bach, with whom she studied harpsichord in Berlin, and C. P. E. Bach, of whom she became a significant patroness. When in 1791 the composer C. F. C. Fasch established the Berlin Singakademie to promote sacred German choral music, Sarah was among the first to join. And when in 1800 the directorship passed to Zelter (who seven years later founded an affiliated Ripienschule for performing older instrumental music), Sarah actively participated in that ensemble. She frequently appeared as a soloist in keyboard concerti of the Bachs, including J. S. Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (ca. 1721), the first concerto to feature a written-out, virtuoso keyboard cadenza. Though by 1807 Bach's high, contrapuntally charged, baroque style had long been obsolescent, the chesslike permutations of its parts still intrigued Sarah. No doubt her diligence in collecting and preserving this music facilitated the later Bachian pursuits of both Fanny and Felix, including, of course, Felix's watershed 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion, the event generally recognized as triggering the modern Bach revival.

From all available evidence Sarah was an estimable virtuoso and connoisseur, traits that passed on to her niece, grandniece, and grandnephew. She was also an inveterate bibliophile who amassed a considerable music library, much of it eventually donated to the Singakademie. Though now scattered by the vicissitudes of time, many manuscripts and printed editions bearing her (p.11) stamp of ownership still survive in European and American libraries.21 A cursory review reveals her highly specialized, eighteenth-century tastes, centered on J. S. Bach and composers active in Berlin. Among the extant portions of her library are manuscript copies of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and French Suites; fantasies of W. F. Bach; keyboard works, concerti, and orchestral works of C. P. E. Bach; and—recovered most recently—flute quartets of J. J. Quantz, not in the popular, galant style typical of that composer, but in severely contrapuntal idioms approaching the austerities of J. S. Bach.22

A few manuscripts from Sarah's library certify her patronage of C. P. E. Bach, for nearly thirty years the accompanist of Frederick the Great, who, when not redrawing the European map through his military campaigns, advanced his skills as a flutist; Emanuel Bach later served for twenty more years as the director of sacred music in Hamburg. Sarah possessed autographs of several experimental works from Bach's very last year, 1788, presumably commissioned for her Berlin salon. The three Quartets (H 537–39) featured solo parts for flute, viola, and keyboard (harpsichord or fortepiano, increasingly popular since the 1770s); a cello doubled the bass line of the keyboard and thickened the trio texture to a quartet. This unusual scoring enabled Bach to test varying combinations of instrumental colors and to enrich the middle register of the ensemble by assigning independent material to the viola. But an even more singular work was the Concerto in E-flat Major for harpsichord, fortepiano, and orchestra (H 479), in which two musical sound worlds collided—the elegant, baroque finery of the harpsichord and the graduated dynamics and undamped sonorities of the new piano. Like the quartets, the concerto illustrated the quirky, mannered style for which Emanuel Bach became celebrated, with its impulsive, angular leaps in melodic lines and unpredictable excursions to distant keys that tested the limits of eighteenth-century functional harmony.

Sarah's sisters Fanny (1758–1818) and Cäcilie (1760–1836), the two greataunts after whom Fanny Cäcilia Mendelssohn was named, were also highly trained musicians. All three sisters subscribed to Emanuel Bach's series of keyboard works published in six volumes between 1779 and 1786 for “connoisseurs and amateurs” (Kenner und Liebhaber). Here, in expressive threemovement sonatas offering sharply delineated and contrasting moods, in fantasies impressing as unpremeditated improvisations, and in lighthearted rondos designed for a more popular audience, the sisters could explore the full range of Emanuel Bach's art.

Relatively little is known about Cäcilie and Fanny's Berlin years, but they numbered among the connoisseurs in Sarah's circle. Cäcilie's library included a copy of J. S. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor (BWV 1060), and we might easily imagine her joining Sarah to perform Emanuel Bach's double concerto. In 1776 their sister Fanny wed Nathan von Arnstein and moved to Vienna; after a failed first union, Cäcilie followed suit in 1799 by marrying his brother-in-law Bernhard von Eskeles and thereby strengthened (p.12) an endogamous financial enterprise. These two court bankers, among the first Viennese Jews to hold patents of nobility (Fanny and Cäcilie would both attain the rank of baroness), founded the house of Arnstein & Eskeles, which rose to prominence during the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815). Advisors to the Austrian emperor, they also counted among their less well-to-do clients Beethoven, who invested in their bank shares23 and composed for Cäcilie's album a short Goethe setting. Befitting a woman of her status, Cäcilie kept a salon, but considerably more visible among the aristocracy was her older sister Fanny. She attended Mozart's concerts and committed her time and resources to philanthropy; among her benefactions was a charity concert in 1812 that led to the founding of a Viennese concert society, the high-profiled Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

During the Congress of Vienna, Fanny's salon counted among the most illustrious, where one might encounter Wellington, Talleyrand, the Prussian minister Hardenberg, and other allied potentates assembled to erase memories of Napoleon's empire, and celebrities in the arts and letters, including the Schlegels, Madame de Staël, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Decidedly anti-French and pro-Prussian, Fanny celebrated Christmas in 1814 by introducing at her residence a Berlin tradition, a tree adorned with gifts for her guests. Metternich's secret police eavesdropped on her conversations and Cäcilie’s, and found the ladies “scandalously Prussian” (scandaleusement prussiennes). When Fanny von Arnstein died in 1818, her niece Lea Mendelssohn eulogized her as “the most interesting woman in Europe, a miraculous phenomenon in our stupid, egoistic times.”24

A considerably less extravagant lifestyle was enjoyed by Dorothea Schlegel, a paternal aunt of Fanny Mendelssohn. Born Brendel Mendelssohn (1764–1839), she was the eldest of Moses Mendelssohn's children to survive to adulthood. Groomed intellectually by her father, she developed her mind, as Sebastian Hensel later observed, “to a higher degree than usually falls to the lot of her sex.”25 But her education proved a “dangerous gift” after her marriage at age eighteen to the banker Simon Veit, a match prearranged by Moses, following Jewish custom. Enduring a loveless relationship, she bore two sons, the painters Jonas and Philipp Veit, who later became members of the brotherhood of German Nazarene artists in Rome, so named because they wore their hair in imitation of Christ.

Talented as a writer but afforded little public recognition of her authorship, Brendel found artistic and intellectual stimulation instead in the Berlin salons of the 1780s and 1790s, which enjoyed a remarkable florescence until the artificial caesura imposed by the French defeat of Prussia in 1806. Their significance requires a brief digression. Based on French models, the salons recalled as well the informal gatherings at the home of Moses Mendelssohn, at which Lessing, the publisher Friedrich Nicolai, and others had discussed philosophy, literature, and the arts. But the new salons differed markedly in their social inclusiveness (p.13) and areas of interest. First of all, their organizers were Jewish women, notably the first of the Berlin salonnières, Henriette Herz (1764–1847), and their most celebrated proponent, Rahel Levin (1771–1833), who held her salon in the garret of her parents’ residence, where she served her guests tea.

Henriette, wife of the physician and amateur philosopher Marcus Herz, was an intimate friend of Brendel and of Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, with whom she founded in 1787 a “league of virtue” (Tugendbund). While Marcus, a former pupil of Immanuel Kant, discoursed in one room about science and philosophy, Henriette promoted introspective literary conversations in another, where she explored the highly subjective world of the German preromantic Sturm und Drang. Rahel's salon drew nobles and commoners alike, and several early romantic writers, including Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, de la Motte Fouqué, and Rahel's sister-in-law Friederike Robert. Unmarried and idolized by the nobility, Rahel took many lovers, and in the opinion of many Berliners qualified as a femme libre. Her letters, of which thousands survive in an informal style blending Yiddish and German, suggest a deliberate withdrawal from the sweeping political events of the day into an inwardly romantic realm of feelings. Rahel yearned for full assimilation into mainstream German culture and for separation from her Jewish identity. Changing her surname to Robert, she was baptized as a Protestant, an act that cleared the way for her marriage in 1814 to the diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. Three years later, at the urging of the theologian Schleiermacher, Henriette Herz accepted baptism into the Lutheran Church, but only after the death of her mother, an Orthodox Jew.

In the rigid, hierarchical society of late eighteenth-century Berlin, the new salons afforded a semipublic/private escape where Prussians of different religious persuasions and social standings—Jews and Christians, nobility and commoners, conservatives and liberals, the wealthy and the middle class— could freely mingle, unencumbered by class, gender, or religious distinctions. Here, in a Prussia that denied Jews citizenship, ideas of interfaith tolerance and assimilation germinated. For Brendel Veit, Henriette Herz's salon offered relief as well from an increasingly untenable marriage. Here, in 1797, Brendel met her soulmate, a brilliant if impecunious literary critic, Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), younger than her by some eight years and about to propound a radical theory of modern poetry as a romantic art form that tended toward the “universal.” By late 1798, Brendel had left her husband and moved to the outskirts of Berlin, where she enjoyed assignations with Schlegel. A divorce followed early in 1799, and Brendel was finally free from the “long slavery” she likened to a shipwreck.26 Salvaged from its flotsam were her writing desk, piano, and custody of her younger son, Philipp.

The same year two other events profoundly influenced Brendel's new life. First, Friedrich published his sensational novel Lucinde, a thinly veiled, allegorical account of his relationship with Brendel, and of their perfervid spiritual (p.14) and physical love. Lucinde was roundly condemned—by Schiller as unnatural and formless for its experimental mixture of literary genres, by Hegel as an immoral attack on the institution of marriage, and, later, by Kierkegaard as “naked sensuality.”27 Second, Friedrich, Brendel, and Philipp moved to the small university town of Jena, the epicenter of early German romanticism, where they joined Friedrich's brother August Wilhelm Schlegel and other writers, including Tieck and Novalis, and the philosopher Schelling. In this circle Brendel found new freedom for her literary muse. The novel Florentin, now understood as her response to or reading of Lucinde,28 appeared anonymously in 1801 under Friedrich's “editorship,” for, as Brendel observed, in her prose “the devil too often governed where the dative or accusative should have.”29

Amalgamating, like Lucinde, a variety of genres to create Schlegelian “romantic confusion,” Florentin nevertheless projects a clear narrative, though its characters remain “indeterminately developed.”30 The novel treats the moral development of the young, wandering artist of the title and his relationships to the fifteen-year-old Julianne, daughter of a count whose life Florentin has saved, and to her mysterious aunt Clementina. Likened to St. Cecilia, she performs annually a requiem of her own composition and has trained a choir to read “magnificent old pieces which one otherwise would never hear.”31 There are some suggestions that Clementina is Florentin's mother, but her identity is never revealed, and ultimately Florentin simply disappears, leaving the novel open-ended. In Brendel's unpublished dedication to Friedrich, whose literary theories privileged the fragment, she addressed this issue through a simile: “Usually, though, one finds no ending of a novel satisfying unless the person in whom one is most interested gets married or is buried, and people will complain that here neither of the two options brings us completely to rest. …I am like those little girls who prefer to play with a naked doll which they can dress differently every hour and to which they can give a totally different appearance, than with the most splendidly and most perfectly dressed doll that has her clothes—and, with them, her final destiny—sewn permanently into place.”32

There is evidence that Brendel conceived new variants of the doll's game in a sequel to Florentin. Left among her papers were incomplete drafts of a novella titled Camilla, possibly intended for insertion into Florentin, a technique recalling Cervantes's digressions in Don Quixote, one of Friedrich's favorite novels. The Camilla fragments are noteworthy, too, for what they reveal about Brendel's evolving spirituality. In contrast to the anti-Catholic stance of Florentin, the title character of Camilla is a devout Catholic, paralleling Brendel's own remarkable spiritual trajectory that included not one but two conversions. In 1804, after accompanying Friedrich to Paris, Brendel was baptized as a Protestant, whereupon she took the name Dorothea, married Friedrich, and became Dorothea Schlegel. Then, four years later, after a peripatetic lifestyle that led them to Cologne, the couple converted to Catholicism. For Friedrich, Protestantism had remained tethered to the rationalist Enlightenment of the (p.15) eighteenth century; the Catholic faith, in contrast, beckoned him to tap into the emotional roots of Christianity. For Dorothea also, the second conversion symbolized a further removal from the Enlightenment and from her father's values and Jewish upbringing.

As a writer, Dorothea subordinated her creative role to that of her husband. Apart from Florentin, she contributed translations, essays, and critical reviews to Friedrich's journal Europa. She translated Madame de Staël's novel Corinne and an Arthurian romance about the magician Merlin, only to see both appear under Friedrich's name and several of her other writings subsumed into his collected works. For much of her life she remained estranged from her relatives, including Fanny's father, Abraham, whom she once described as a “barbarian without feeling.”33 Though ultimately the siblings reconciled (her brothers supported her financially in her declining years), Dorothea's sensational life story did not at all accord with the genteel existence, free from want, of Abraham and Lea. And yet there are familiar parallels between Dorothea's and Fanny Hensel's creative worlds. Like Dorothea, Fanny was largely denied an authorial identity. Until the last year or so of her life, Fanny composed the vast bulk of her music with little thought of publication. The few works she released before 1846 appeared either anonymously or under the aegis of the dominant masculine influence in her life, her brother Felix, who appropriated six of her lieder into his first two song collections. Like Dorothea, Fanny discovered her own creative space within a domestic setting well removed from the glare of officialdom. As we shall see, Fanny's solution would be to supervise during the 1830s and 1840s a salonlike institution at the Berlin family residence, not a literary type modeled on the precedent of Dorothea's friend Henriette Herz, but a brilliant series of musical gatherings recalling the refined tastes of Sarah Levy. At the family residence Fanny explored a semipublic/private space in which her own music and music making found expressive outlets.


Remarkably little is known about Fanny's early years in Hamburg. The first notice about her is a letter, written by Abraham to his mother-in-law the day after Fanny's birth, reporting the difficulties of Lea's labor but also her prophetic maternal observation—their daughter had “Bach fugal fingers.”34 Some three years later, Felix's arrival on February 3, 1809, prompted more comparisons: the son, Lea informed her Viennese cousin Henriette von Pereira Arnstein, promised to be “more pretty” than Fanny, an allusion to a slight orthopedic deformity inherited from her grandfather Moses. At age three and a half, she was reading her letters plainly and purposefully fabricating phrases with clarity and coherence.35 We then lose sight of Fanny and her siblings—Rebecka (p.16) was born in Hamburg on April 11, 1811, and Paul in Berlin on October 30, 1812—for several years, allowing us to trace the fortunes of the Mendelssohn bank, the family's decision to leave Hamburg in 1811, and the rise to prominence of the Berlin firm.

When Abraham and Joseph established Gebrüder Mendelssohn & Co. in 1805, Hamburg was a free, “neutral” city of about 130,000 residents as yet unscathed by the Napoleonic campaigns. A centuries-old member of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg had prospered as a north German center of shipbuilding and commerce. Among its entrepreneurs plying the banker's trade was Salomon Heine, uncle of the poet, who amassed a fortune of forty-one million francs and described himself as Abraham's “best friend.”36 Though the Mendelssohn brothers moved in Salomon's social circle, their business began as a comparatively modest concern. Still, by 1806 they were attracting clients from Amsterdam, London, Paris, Riga, Warsaw, and Vienna; and Lea Mendelssohn, who had inherited a share of the Itzig fortune, maintained an account that alone generated an annual income of 7,000 thalers.37

Supporting Hamburg's neutrality was a stalwart municipal government that might be described as a democracy for its 3,000 to 4,000 propertied Lutheran burghers, ruled by a senate and administrative colleges. To maintain its independence, Hamburg had successfully rebuffed claims on its sovereignty by the German Reich and, since the middle of the eighteenth century, had thwarted the aggrandizing interests of Prussia. Hamburg's neutrality was challenged too by Denmark, which in 1640 had acquired Altona, just one mile north of Hamburg on the Elbe River. Here, in a bustling merchant city that by 1800 was rivaling its neighbor, duty-free wares were readily available, and, through the enlightened policy of the Danish monarchy, French Huguenots, Dutch Mennonites, and Spanish, Portuguese, and German Jews enjoyed religious freedom. In particular, Jews could worship openly, in contrast to Hamburg, where synagogues were suppressed. Perhaps this measure of freedom explains why Abraham's mother, Fromet, spent her final years in Altona, and why Abraham and Lea decided to purchase Martens’ Mill, a “country cottage with a balcony” near Altona,38 to serve as their summer residence from 1805 to 1811.

Hamburg's vaunted neutrality had encouraged one unusual political enterprise: between 1796 and 1803 members of the United Irishmen used the city as a base to forge a Franco-Irish alliance, a futile escapade that exposed Hamburg to belligerent diplomatic exchanges between France and England. Then, about a year after the Mendelssohns’ arrival, Napoleon decisively compromised the city's neutrality. In July 1806 he established the Confederation of the Rhine, an artificial alliance of sixteen German states that opposed Prussian interests, and aroused the usually lethargic monarch, Frederick William III, to abandon his policy of neutrality in favor of mobilization. But the outmoded, oblique formations of his military—the novelist Theodor Fontane (p.17) likened them to the “valedictory parade of the Frederickian army”39—were no match for Napoleon's flexible tactics. At Jena he outflanked and routed the Prussians, while at Auerstädt Marshal Louis Davout crushed a numerically superior enemy. With Frederick William in full flight, Napoleon entered Berlin, seized as a spoil of war the quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate, and established the Continental System late in 1806 to blockade English trade with Europe. In retaliation, the English began interdicting vessels bound for ports under French control.

The new economic sanctions were catastrophic for Hamburg; fortunes dependent there upon free trade now vanished. A succession of gouverneurs— beginning in November 1806 with Marshal Mortier and culminating in February 1811 with the dreaded Duke of Auerstädt himself, Marshal Davout— imposed repressive measures leading to the formal annexation of Hamburg as a French territory. English goods were seized as contraband, and citizens faced arbitrary conscription into the French navy. But there was one unintended consequence: Hamburg became a smuggler's haven, where blockade-runners practiced a thriving trade, tacitly supported by venal French officials. Resorting to subterfuges that strained credulity, the smugglers conveyed English and colonial goods from Altona to Hamburg under the very eyes of customs agents, in thinly disguised, sugar-filled gravel carts, and in interminable funeral processions with caskets bearing coffee, vanilla, and indigo instead of cadavers.

For about four and a half years, the Mendelssohns experienced firsthand the French occupation, which tempered Abraham's Francophilia and converted him into a German patriot. At some point in the first half of 1811, the brothers evidently ran afoul of the authorities, so that, Sebastian Hensel informs us, their families were “obliged to flee the town, and in mist and darkness they escaped one night in disguise, turning their steps toward Berlin.”40 Hensel's intriguing statement arouses speculation about the brothers’ illicit activities: were they, for instance, blockade-runners or even agents of Frederick William? We shall probably never know for certain, though recently released Prussian archives from 1811 and 1812 allow us to flesh out some parts of Hensel's sketchy account.41 Titled “The Arrest of the Mendelssohn Brothers,” the archives indeed document a different sequence of events, even as they raise new questions.

Here we learn, first of all, that Joseph's family departed Hamburg in May and Abraham's separately in June 1811, so that the brothers probably did not flee incognito under cover of darkness. But they did bring to Berlin their account books, enough to raise the suspicions of French authorities in Hamburg that they were attempting to evade a debt owed to the customs office, the grand sum of 200,000 francs. And so, in July 1811 the French ambassador to Prussia requested the brothers’ immediate arrest and the surrender of their accounts. There followed weeks, then months of diplomatic exchanges and procrastination from the Berlin authorities, as they determined that the (p.18) Prussian government had a vested interest in not granting the French access to the bank's documents. Since Napoleon's regime meanwhile had seized the Hamburg firm, Joseph and Abraham formally dissolved Gebrüder Mendelssohn & Co., owing to “changed circumstances,” and reorganized the Berlin branch as the business J. & A. Mendelssohn. To placate the French, the Prussian police interrogated the brothers, placed them under house arrest, and confiscated their books. Protesting their innocence and invoking their legal rights as “protected Jews” of the Prussian monarch, Joseph and Abraham nevertheless agreed to raise a security deposit of 200,000 francs, and in October their account books were dispatched to Hamburg, where officials examined them under the watchful eyes of the Prussian legate. Early in January 1812 the French finally released the accounts, but not until April did the Prussian foreign ministry exonerate the brothers and close the matter.

At age six, Fanny was innocent enough of these worldly affairs, though she evidently was beginning to correspond with her aunt Henriette in Paris, who described the child's writing as “really the 2nd edition of all the maternal talent.”42 By this time, political events had taken a dramatic course. On March 11, 1812, the Prussian monarch issued a decree emancipating, or so it seemed, Jewish subjects through the grant of citizenship. Now essentially a vassal state of France, the government extracted harsh levies from its citizenry to support a momentous turning point in European history—Napoleon's invasion of Russia. But after the emperor's forced retreat—only one-sixth (100,000 men) of his grande armée, the largest military force yet assembled, managed to return in December to Paris—bellicose Prussian voices clamored for freedom from the French yoke. In March 1813 Frederick William struck an alliance with the tsar and again declared war on France. J. & A. Mendelssohn—assessed, one year before, tens of thousands of thalers for the Russian campaign—now actively supported the War of Liberation. For the next several months, Abraham divided his time between Berlin, Breslau (where the Prussian court had reconvened), and Vienna, where he oversaw shipments of Austrian arms to the Prussian army.

Because of fears that the French would march again on Berlin, Lea and the children fled in June to Vienna and took refuge for several months at the residence of Fanny von Arnstein,43 whom Lea likened to a “second mother,” even if Vienna was a “veritable Sodom” of vanity and superficiality. In Vienna Abraham donated 500 gulden for the care of wounded Austrian soldiers;44 also around this time he acquired the unlikely nickname of Septimius Severus, after the Roman emperor (193–211 A.D.) who had persecuted Jews and Christians alike. Fanny Mendelssohn's earliest surviving letter, penned in Vienna on July 12, 1813, when she was seven, captures a rather absurd moment during a time of great anxiety and uncertainty: “Meanwhile one of the ladies disguised father and named him Emperor Septimius Severus; a shawl represented his cloak, a wreath of pear foliage his crown, and a parasol his scepter. He assumed (p.19) completely the imperial manner; when Uncle [Jacob] entered and didn’t doff his hat, father took his scepter and knocked it off his head.”45

The final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, accelerated the rise of the Mendelssohns’ bank. In the reactionary aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, Prussia joined the allies in imposing punitive war reparations upon France. A consortium of banks, led by the Rothschilds of Frankfurt and including the Mendelssohns’ firm, managed the lucrative enterprise of overseeing the payments; for J. & A. Mendelssohn, the receipts amounted to 5/32 of the profits from the transactions.46 Exploiting the new business climate, Joseph Mendelssohn established a bureau in Paris, where he took up residence with his family in October, and began managing the fund transfers from Paris to Berlin. Meanwhile, the Berlin branch expanded its operations from a new location on Jägerstraße, in the center of the city's business district, where it remained until 1938, when the Nazis finally “Aryanized” its assets and liquidated the bank.


On March 21, 1816, coincidentally or not the birthday of Lea's favored composer, J. S. Bach, Lea and her husband witnessed the baptism of their children by Johann Jakob Stegemann, Reformed Protestant minister of the Jerusalemskirche near the Gendarmenmarkt. According to most accounts, the ceremony took place in the church, but it may well be that the sacrament was administered at the family quarters at Markgrafenstraße no. 48, owned by Pastor Stegemann, and not far from the Mendelssohn bank on Jägerstraße.47 The parents, who chose not to convert that day, were well aware that their action would cause a schism within the family, and so they took special pains to withhold the news from Lea's mother, an Orthodox Jew. In the baptismal record, the children appeared with the second surname Bartholdy, and Fanny with the name Cäcilia, so that she became Fanny Cäcilia Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Felix became Jacob Ludwig Felix; Rebecka, Rebecka Henriette; and Paul, Paul Hermann).48 The addition of Bartholdy followed the example of Lea's brother Jacob Salomon, who, upon converting in 1805 to the Protestant faith, had adopted the name of the dairy farm owned by his grandfather, Daniel Itzig. In the case of the Mendelssohn children, their new identity also may have been in response to the Emancipation Edict of 1812, by which the Prussian monarch had directed Jewish subjects to adopt fixed family names. Indeed, as early as that year, Abraham began using Bartholdy; in a list of the Berlin Jewish congregation, he appears as Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy.49

The question of religious identity, so influential for the music of Felix and Fanny, animated a new phenomenon in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Berlin: middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish families pursuing the (p.20) elusive goal of assimilation now became increasingly attracted to conversion. Thus, of Moses Mendelssohn's six children, only two remained faithful to Judaism; two, including Abraham, became Protestants, and two, including Brendel, became Catholics. The willingness to convert was in part opportunistic, in part motivated by genuine spiritual conviction, and in part impregnated by the idea circulating in the salons that the gulf separating the Jewish and Christian faiths was narrowing and indeed might disappear altogether in the future. And so, in 1799, David Friedländer—a maternal great-uncle of Fanny, disciple of Moses Mendelssohn, and leader of the Berlin Jewish community—made a startling proposal: German Jews might join the Protestant Church through a rapprochement based upon common moral values instead of the formal recognition of Christ's divinity. Friedländer's assumption was that Judaism and Christianity would merge into a “confederated unitarian church-synagogue” and that so-called dry baptism would advance acculturation and assimilation.50

Though Friedländer's optimism was not commonly shared, the wave of Berlin conversions continued to wash over the Jewish community, so that some historians later likened the apostasy to an epidemic of baptism. In the case of Abraham and Lea, the decision to convert was no impulsive act, but one influenced by family history and their status in Prussian society. In 1763, after repeated petitions, Frederick the Great had reluctantly granted Moses Mendelssohn a letter of protection (Schützbrief ),51 subsequently extended by Frederick William II to Moses's widow and children in 1787, the year after the philosopher's death. In contrast, since 1761 Daniel Itzig had enjoyed the exalted general privilege, at the time granted only to three Jews. Then, in 1791, the Prussian monarch took the unprecedented step of naturalizing Itzig's family, including on the maternal side his children and grandchildren. In short, the Itzigs acquired the rights of Christian citizens, though they remained free to continue worshiping as Jews. But the king placed a provision on his largesse: the rights were revocable if the Itzig issue “should fall into the Jewish petty dealing that is still common among a great part of the Jewish nation.”52

As far as Abraham and Lea were concerned, the royal edicts protected them (by marrying Lea in 1804, Abraham had become a citizen), but not their issue. They therefore faced a dilemma: should they raise their children in the Jewish faith and risk the whims of the Prussian government, or should their children at some point convert to Christianity and thereby embrace the dominant culture? The evidence establishes that early on the parents favored the latter course. A Jewish register of male births in Hamburg and Altona between the years 1781 and 1811 contains no entry for Felix; what is more, in 1821 C. F. Zelter claimed to Goethe that Abraham had made the “considerable sacrifice” of not having his sons circumcised,53 a statement confirmed in Lea's correspondence with her Viennese cousin Henriette von Pereira-Arnstein—there, Lea revealed the distress of her mother, Bella Salomon, that Felix “was not (p.21) made a Jew” (nicht zum Juden gemacht war).54 In a concert review published just months after Abraham and Lea converted in October 1822, an anonymous critic averred that Felix “was born and raised in our Lutheran religion”55 and thus helped disseminate the image of the Mendelssohn Bartholdys as upstanding Protestant burghers. As Zelter put it, Felix was “the son of a Jew, but no Jew.”

The precedent of Jacob Bartholdy weighed heavily on the parents’ deliberations about their children's spiritual upbringing. When Jacob Salomon changed his faith and name in 1805, Bella Salomon summarily disinherited him. Nevertheless, Jacob continued on the path of assimilation. A patriot, he fought against Napoleon in the Austrian campaign of 1809 and later served as the Prussian consul to Rome, where he resided in the Casa Bartholdy overlooking the Spanish Steps. An art connoisseur, Jacob commissioned the German Nazarene painters (among them Dorothea Schlegel's son Philipp Veit) to prepare frescoes for his drawing room. Jacob believed strongly in the correctness of his decision to become a Christian and sought to overcome whatever ambivalence Abraham had about conversion. An undated letter from Jacob gives a glimpse of the earnest discussions of the brothers-in-law:

You say you owe it to the memory of your father, but do you think you have done something bad in giving your children the religion that appears to you to be the best? It is the most just homage you or any of us could pay to the efforts of your father to promote true light and knowledge, and he would have acted like you for his children, and perhaps like me for himself. You may remain faithful to an oppressed, persecuted religion, you may leave it to your children as a prospect of life-long martyrdom, as long as you believe it to be absolute truth. But when you have ceased to believe that, it is barbarism. I advise you to adopt the name of Mendelssohn Bartholdy as a distinction from the other Mendelssohns.56

In 1816, Abraham took Jacob's advice and separated his children from the “other Mendelssohns.” As we shall see, Fanny later applied her musical talents to reconcile her uncle with his estranged mother and alleviate the distress caused by their religious divide.

From all appearances, Fanny and her siblings before their baptism were nonpracticing Jews. One intriguing question remains: why did Abraham and Lea delay their children's conversion until 1816? Prussian history perhaps provides some answers. Between the defeat of 1806 and resumption of war in 1813, Frederick William's monarchy, stripped of considerable territory and depleted financially, was reduced to a puppet state of France. During this period Napoleon's decisive rout of the Prussian military emboldened some reform-minded civil servants, including the minister Karl August von Hardenburg (a friend of David Friedländer), to press for equality for Jews. Perhaps the prospect of full Jewish citizenship held out by the 1812 edict induced Abraham and (p.22) Lea to defer their children's conversion. But, as was often the case with royal promulgations, appearances were deceptive. The ambiguous wording of some clauses encouraged the perpetuation of certain discriminatory aspects of the status quo; thus, after 1812 as before, Jews were barred from government and university positions.

The successful prosecution of the War of Liberation in 1813 in fact did little to advance the cause of Jewish emancipation. On the contrary, the conservative restoration of the Congress of Vienna encouraged a political backlash, as Prussia and the hodgepodge of German states experienced a surging nationalism that stamped an indelible image of a homogeneous, Christian Volk on their common cultural identity. At one extreme, patriotism asserted itself in burgeoning student societies through a crudely appropriated, medieval Christian zealotry. Jews had willingly volunteered and sacrificed for the war, but they were increasingly unwelcome in the intolerant post-Napoleonic political order. Though the king never annulled the Edict of 1812, he essentially rendered it ineffective by circumventing some key provisions. Restoration Prussia thus did not meaningfully advance social equality for Jews, and Abraham and Lea's apprehension about the future was probably a significant factor that led them in 1816 to have their children become Protestants, in order to ensure their rights as Prussian citizens.


Regrettably, we know little about Fanny's early formal education beyond her son's statement that “at first the parents themselves undertook the scientific instruction of their children.”57 According to Sir George Grove, author of the entry for Felix in the pioneering Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the parents routinely roused their children at 5:00 A.M. and insisted upon a strict regimen of studies.58 Some idea of parental involvement is evident in the letters Abraham sent home during his business travels. One letter to Fanny, dated Amsterdam, April 5, 1819, reveals a concern for his daughter's Christian upbringing, even as the unconverted father espoused a deistic, unitarian position, probably not far removed from the faith of his father:

You are now old enough to find subjects to write to me about, not only in the daily events, but also in your thoughts. I should like to hear now and then what ideas your occupations awaken in you. As long as I was at home, for instance, mother told me much about your lessons with the clergyman. You should do that yourself now; so that I may see by your letters, now that I cannot personally watch it, what influence his teaching has on your heart and mind. Above all, let it be that of more and more strengthening your endeavor to please your loving and revered mother, (p.23) and to arrive through obedience at love, through order and discipline at freedom and happiness. That is the best way of thanking and worshipping the Creator, the Maker of us all. There are in all religions only one God, one virtue, one truth, one happiness. You will find all this, if you follow the voice of your heart; live so that it be ever in harmony with the voice of your reason.59

If Fanny's parents played the dominant role in her early education, Felix followed a different course. By 1816, Abraham had enrolled him in a private elementary school, where at age seven his impressive memory was attracting attention. That year, he was already studying piano and with Fanny examining the complexities of opera piano-vocal scores, gifts from his grandmother. His passion (Leidenschaft), according to Lea, was to read the plays of Goethe and Shakespeare—to that end, his parents established a “small theater,” which Fanny provisioned with puppets. Here, on this domestic stage, Felix discovered Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which, Lea revealed, became the child's favorite reading (Lieblingslectüre), a disclosure that might well raise our eyebrows, until perhaps we remember that only ten years later the precocious adolescent would compose his celebrated concert overture to Shakespeare's comedy.60

In 1818, Abraham engaged a history docent from the University of Berlin to tutor Felix and Paul. Then, in 1819, the classical philologist C. W. L. Heyse (father of Paul Heyse, the first German Nobel laureate in literature) was retained as the Mendelssohns’ tutor, and, according to Paul Heyse's memoirs, for seven years groomed Felix to prepare his matriculation at the University of Berlin. Undoubtedly, Fanny and Rebecka's education was far less systematic. In their case, there was no prospect of advanced studies, for the university was then not an option for women. Instead, young, leisured ladies were inculcated with the “ideology of domesticity,” predicated upon the idea that “the home should be the source and repository of all affections and virtues and woman its guardian angel.”61 Thus, domestic arts and subjects—the skill of conversation, foreign languages, ethics and religion, music, drawing, painting, and dance— were encouraged, while practical and traditional subjects were introduced only to the extent that they promoted the efficient management of a household. Nevertheless, the Mendelssohns were highly cultured and intellectually curious, and Fanny and Rebecka did benefit, to some extent at least, from Heyse's tutelage. One of Felix's letters reveals, for example, that in 1821 he was sharing with Fanny each week two hours of history lessons, two of arithmetic, one of geography, and one of German conversation,62 and, according to family friend Julius Schubring, Felix was tutored “partly with his sisters and partly alone.”63 Supporting Fanny was the unusual example of her mother; the young Lea Salomon had developed her mind to a high degree, and there is every reason to believe that Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy encouraged her daughters to do so (p.24) as well. Behind the façade of social reserve and domestic femininity, Lea had delighted in exploring the fugal peregrinations of the Well-Tempered Clavier and perusing Homer in the Greek. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fanny's personal library included a copy of Herodotus's Persian Wars,64 though there is little hard evidence that she advanced very far in Greek, unlike Rebecka, who by the late 1820s was comfortably dispatching Aeschylus, or Felix, who occasionally embellished his letters with pithy quotations from Homer.

Of course, music formed the strongest bond between mother and daughter. On account of her Bachian “fugal fingers,” Fanny no doubt explored her musicality to an extent far greater than was customary for women. Her first instructor, naturally enough, was Lea, who began with lessons of only five minutes, which she gradually augmented and molded into systematic instruction; she employed the same approach for Felix.65 At some point, Lea entrusted the siblings’ keyboard studies to leading Berlin pedagogues and secured first for that purpose the Moravian Franz Lauska,66 who had served as a proofreader for Beethoven in Vienna and promoted himself as a pupil of Mozart, though that tutelage is questionable. A composer of piano sonatas that taxed amateurs but not virtuosi, Lauska was a familiar figure at the Berlin Singakademie and salons; his pupils included the young Giacomo Meyerbeer and members of the Prussian royal family.

Around April 1817, the highly regarded virtuoso Ludwig Berger replaced Lauska. A former student of the versatile pianist, composer, music publisher, and piano manufacturer Muzio Clementi, Berger had pursued an unusual career that never reached its full potential. Following his teacher in 1804 to St. Petersburg, he had developed a Russian market for Clementi's pianos and formed a friendship with another expatriate Clementi disciple, the Irishman John Field, the first composer of piano nocturnes. Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812 prompted Berger to flee for England, where he became a founding member of the Philharmonic Society and celebrated Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo by emblazing the name of Wellington's ally, the Prussian General Blücher, before his residence.67 Safely returned to Berlin, Berger gave a successful concert in 1814, but an arm injury forced him to abandon his virtuoso career in favor of teaching. Despite suffering too from hypochondria, Berger was a highly sought-out pedagogue who commanded the highest fees in Berlin. Among his many successful students were Fanny and Felix, who, according to Ludwig Rellstab, became “independent virtuosos” under Berger's tutelage.68 His life overlapped significantly with the Mendelssohns until the latter part of 1819, when Carl Friedrich Zelter emerged as Fanny and Felix's composition teacher.

Whether Berger offered Fanny instruction solely in piano or also in composition is a question neither much explored nor answerable. Though Fanny's first surviving composition dates from late 1819, when she was fourteen, is it far-fetched to imagine her notating musical musings a few years earlier? If (p.25) she did, Berger may have played a significant role (in 1822, embittered over Zelter's success with the children, Berger did claim credit for shaping Felix's compositional development69). Berger himself specialized in two genres to which Fanny later devoted most of her creative energies: the solo, texted art song (lied), and the short character piece for piano, which could take the form of a lyrical, songlike miniature or an athletic etude designed to address some aspect of piano technique. Though most of Berger's music is now forgotten, two compositions deserve mention. In the Piano Sonata in C Minor, op. 18 (1801), he set for himself an unusual challenge: all three movements spring from the same taut six-note motive, which infiltrates the work and lends it an unrelenting thematic concentration. Something reminiscent of this strategy is detectable in Fanny's piano sonata in the same key (1824, H-U 128;70 see p. 81); its first movement avoids thematic contrast in favor of a compact head motive, insinuated into numerous guises throughout the movement.

The composition for which Berger is usually remembered, though, is his 1819 song collection Die schöne Müllerin, published a few years before Schubert's famous cycle on the same subject. A product of Berlin salon culture, Berger's work has an unusual tie to Fanny. In the winter of 1816–1817, presumably not long before he began instructing Fanny and Felix, Berger frequented the salon of Elisabeth von Stägemann, a gifted singer, former daughter-in-law of the composer C. H. Graun, and wife of a privy councilor. Berger joined an artistic circle forming around Elisabeth's daughter Hedwig, which included the poet Wilhelm Müller, writer Clemens Brentano, portraitist Wilhelm Hensel, and his sister Luise, a Catholic convert later known for her mystical Catholic verse.

Their pastime was a novel form of entertainment known as the Liederspiel, a narrative play broken up by interspersed songs. Initially they improvised one example on a subject familiar from folk poetry, of the seductive miller-maid pursued by a series of suitors, including a miller-lad, played, appropriately enough, by the namesake Müller, and a hunter, played by Fanny's future husband, Wilhelm Hensel. (In real life, the alluring Luise Hensel considered marriage proposals from Berger, Müller, and Brentano, but rejected them all in favor of a claustral life of Catholic charities.) Using an ingratiating folk style, Berger composed a cycle of ten settings, of which five were on poems by Müller, who in 1820 then reworked his verses into a “poetic monodrama” told from the viewpoint of the miller-lad.71 In turn, Müller's anthology served as the source for Schubert's immortal 1823 cycle. In 1817 Fanny was too young to participate in the Liederspiel, but she came to value Berger's music; six years later, after setting Müller's text Die liebe Farbe, in which the jilted miller-lad requests a burial in green, she critiqued her effort with the comment, “Herr Berger understood this better” (“Das hat Herr Berger besser verstanden”).72

Though Fanny's musicianship first blossomed in Berlin, in 1816 (and possibly again in 1817) her musical horizons expanded considerably when the (p.26) Mendelssohns visited Paris. If the Prussian capital remained a bastion of conservatism in politics and the arts, Paris evinced a more cosmopolitan outlook, notwithstanding the autocratic rule of the restored Bourbon, Louis XVIII, who had reentered post-Napoleon Paris rather ingloriously in the “baggage of the Allies.” The documentation for the Mendelssohns’ Parisian sojourns is meager, but we can trace their itinerary in April 1816 from Berlin to Weimar, where en route Abraham brought a letter to Goethe from Zelter. “He has lovely, worthy children,” Zelter informed the poet, “and his eldest daughter can let you hear something by Sebastian Bach.”73 But on this occasion Goethe did not meet the children; instead, the family proceeded to the French metropolis, where Abraham relieved his brother Joseph of his banking duties. While there, the parents had copies made of the earliest surviving portraits of their children, taken at some point by the Mecklenburg miniaturist August Grahl. Here Fanny, shown at about age eleven, strikes a self-possessed pose— she wears earrings and has her hair gathered in a chignon.

In Paris Fanny met her aunt Henriette, the youngest, unmarried daughter of Moses and director of a boarding school for girls. Among her familiar circle were Madame de Staël, expelled from France in 1810 for De l’Allemagne, her book about German manners, which Napoleon's censors judged too subversive, and Helmina von Chézy, who provided opera libretti for Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber. In 1812, Henriette had converted to Catholicism and become the governess of Fanny Sebastiani, daughter of one of Napoleon's generals. When not tutoring her pampered charge in an opulent hôtel overlooking the Champs Elysées, Henriette might be found attending the new chamber music concerts established in 1814 by the violinist Pierre Baillot, who offered opera-sated Parisians an alternative—string quartets of Boccherini, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Probably through Henriette, Fanny and Felix were introduced to the French virtuoso, a disciple of Viotti and one of the first faculty members of the Paris Conservatoire, which had opened its doors in 1796. Baillot now coached Fanny and Felix in ensemble playing. “You know Baillot's face,” Henriette wrote to Lea after the Mendelssohns’ return to Berlin in November 1816; “this expression remained as long as he spoke of Fanny and Felix, and we spoke of no one else.”74

One of Baillot's colleagues was the Alsatian pianist Madame Bigot de Morogues (née Kiéné), who gave lessons to Fanny and Felix. Through her husband, the librarian of Beethoven's patron Count Razumovsky, Madame Bigot had gained access in Vienna to Haydn and Beethoven, who was so impressed by her rendering of the Appassionata Sonata that he gave her his nearly illegible manuscript. Bigot made a specialty of interpreting Beethoven's more difficult piano works, and she may have instilled in Fanny and her brother a healthy curiosity about the composer, whose music was still relatively unknown in Paris (as late as 1825, Felix would decry the Parisian ignorance of Fidelio). According to the Belgian music critic Fétis, Bigot's playing possessed a nuanced (p.27) expression and charm unsurpassed in her time. But she also offered Fanny practical advice about strengthening the weak fourth and fifth fingers—slow and arduous practicing of J. B. Cramer's etudes, for Bigot a sure way to achieve digital independence.75

One of the Mendelssohns’ way stations between Berlin and Paris was Frankfurt, where they visited Dorothea and Friedrich Schlegel. Fanny and Felix performed works by Bach and Handel for Dorothea, who was dumbstruck by their “energy, skill, precision and expression.”76 In April 1817 the Mendelssohns were once again in Frankfurt, presumably about to repeat their Parisian experience, though exactly how many family members accompanied Abraham on this trip is not clear. In any event, for the occasion Friedrich inscribed some paternalistic verses for his niece, who preserved them in her album:

Lebe heiter, denke milde,

Live happily, ponder gently,

Schwebe still im sanften Gleise,

Move quietly over a soft path,

Blühend nach der Blumen Weise

Blooming like flowers,

Wie sie duften im Gefilde.77 wafting

Fragrantly wafting over the fields.

Friedrich's idealized image of Fanny did not exactly accord with her reception then taking hold in Berlin, where Rebecka Meyer described her cousin in 1818 as the least pretty of the Mendelssohn children but strikingly precocious (altklug); Rebecka rated the “angelic” Felix a “true musical genius.”78 Indeed, Felix's musical maturation now accelerated at an incredible rate. At age nine, in 1818, he appeared in a public concert of the horn virtuoso Heinrich Gugel, which received a notice in a Leipzig music journal. There is evidence too that he performed that year a piano concerto by Dussek.79 For Fanny, there was no public debut, but at least one compelling private demonstration of her talent. Her son informs us that in 1818, at age thirteen, she performed from memory for her father twenty-four preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Since Fanny turned thirteen on November 14, this display of filial affection must have occurred in November or December, perhaps on December 11, Abraham's birthday. When Henriette Mendelssohn received the news in Paris, it provoked wonderment but also remonstration: “Fanny's wonderful achievement…and your perseverance, dearest Lea, in superintending her practicing, have made me speechless with astonishment, and I have only recovered the use of my voice to make this great success generally known. But with all the intense admiration I feel both for you and Fanny, I must confess that I think the thing decidedly blamable: the exertion is too great, and might easily have hurt her. The extraordinary talent of your children wants direction, not forcing. Papa Abraham, however, is insatiable, and the best appears to him only just good enough.”80 As a governess, Henriette had definite enough views about how to rear a young lady from a respectable Berlin family. For Henriette, the mores of the leisured class trumped the fugal fingers that would explicate Bach's encyclopedic masterpiece.


(1.) Bulletin of November 14, 1805; Imperial Glory: The Bulletins of Napoleon’s Grande Armée 1805–1814, trans. J. David Markham, London, 2003, 39.

(2.) Thomas Hodgskin, Travels in the North of Germany, Edinburgh, 1820 (repr. New York, 1969), I, 202.

(3.) Leipziger AmZ 4 (1869), 207.

(4.) Salomon Maimon, “Recollections of Mendelssohn,” in Robertson, 48.

(5.) [Joseph Mendelssohn,] “Moses Mendelssohn's Lebensgeschichte,” in Moses Mendelssohn's gesammelte Schriften, ed. G. B. Mendelssohn, Leipzig, 1843, I, 17.

(6.) Ibid., I, 9.

(7.) Lavater, Physiognomic Fragments, cited in Elon, 49. See also Jacob-Friesen, 27.

(8.) Tom Wolf, Smaragdgrün, Berlin, 2004, 246; cited in Nieding: 2007, 110.

(9.) See further Nieding: 2007.

(p.362) (10.) MF I, 63.

(11.) Ibid., I, 62.

(12.) Stromeyer, I, 198.

(13.) Marx: 1991, 209.

(14.) Amalie Beer to Giacomo Meyerbeer, May 18, 1816, in Meyerbeer, I, 313.

(15.) Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, Harmondsworth, 1986, ch. 5. For Abraham's assertion, see Heine, 245.

(16.) MF I, 61.

(17.) Stromeyer, I, 198.

(18.) Kippenberg, 73.

(19.) MF I, 72.

(20.) Lewald: 1992, 47.

(21.) See Wollny.

(22.) See Oleskiewicz.

(23.) Thayer, 729.

(24.) Spiel, 329.

(25.) MF I, 36.

(26.) Brendel Veit to Carl Gustav von Brinckmann, February 2, 1799, in Blackwell and Zantop, 339.

(27.) Cited in Schlegel: 1988, cvi–cvii (n. 8).

(28.) See in particular, Librett, 179 ff.

(29.) MF I, 40–41.

(30.) Librett, 177.

(31.) Ibid., 122.

(32.) Blackwell and Zantop, 345.

(33.) Stern, 187.

(34.) Abraham to Bella Salomon, November 15, 1805, in Elvers: 1997, 17.

(35.) Lea to Henriette von Pereira-Arnstein, May [2], 1809, from a transcribed extract in MDM c. 29; see also Elvers: 1997, 17.

(36.) Therese Devrient, 329.

(37.) Elvers and Klein, 131–36; in 1983, the sum was estimated as the equivalent of 100,000 marks.

(38.) MF I, 72–73.

(39.) In the novel Schach von Wuthenow (1883), trans. by E. M. Falk as A Man of Honor, New York, 1975, 85.

(40.) MF I, 34.

(41.) Panwitz: 2005.

(42.) Klein: 2005, 111; Henriette to Lea, March 25, 1812. Henriette Maria Mendelssohn (1775–1831) was the youngest daughter of Moses Mendelssohn. See further MALIM, 19–20.

(43.) Klein: 2007a.

(44.) Abraham to Berlin, May 28, 1833, in MF, I, 289; see also I, 74, and Spiel, 276, 328, and Lea to the Swedish diplomat Carl Gustav von Brinkman, October 6, 1818, in Klein: 2007, 260.

(45.) Klein 2007a, 205.

(46.) Elvers and Klein, 160.

(47.) On this point see Sievers, 100, 101.

(p.363) (48.) Elvers: 1997, 18.

(49.) Jacobson, 257; see also Gilbert, 315.

(50.) Elon, 74.

(51.) See further ibid., 44–45.

(52.) Spiel, 112–13.

(53.) Zelter to Goethe, October 23, 1821, in Hecker, II, 139. See also Elvers: 1997, 18, concerning the remarkable redaction of this passage, restored to its original by Max Hecker in 1913.

(54.) Lea to Henriette von Pereira-Arnstein, July 4, 1819, MN 15 no. 5.

(55.) Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst 7 (1822); facs. in Klein: 1997, 65.

(56.) MF, I, 75.

(57.) Ibid., I, 89.

(58.) Sir George Grove, “Mendelssohn,” in Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, 1890, II, 254.

(59.) MF, I, 77.

(60.) Lea to Carl Gustaf von Brinkman, February 6, 1816, in Klein: 2007, 255.

(61.) Pope, 304.

(62.) March 22, 1820 [recte 1821], Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: 1997, 5–6.

(63.) Schubring, 223.

(64.) Klein: 1997, 58.

(65.) Benedict, 6.

(66.) Fanny Hensel obituary notice, Vossische Zeitung, May 18, 1847.

(67.) Rellstab, 63.

(68.) Ibid., 79.

(69.) Berger to Jenny Sieber, April 21, 1822, in Siebenkäs, 233.

(70.) The identifying numbers used here and throughout the volume for compositions of Fanny Hensel refer to Hellwig-Unruh: 2000.

(71.) Youens: 1997.

(72.) Hellwig-Unruh: 2000, 117.

(73.) Zelter to Goethe, April 4, 1816, in Hecker, I, 465.

(74.) November 10, 1816, in Gilbert, 35.

(75.) Abraham to Fanny, [July 18,] 1820, in MF, I, 83.

(76.) Stern, 305.

(77.) Klein: 1993, 144.

(78.) Rebecka Meyer to Rosa Herz, March 2, 1818, in Gilbert, 39.

(79.) AmZ 20 (1818), 791; AmZ 39 (1837), 845–46.

(80.) MF, I, 88–89.