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Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann: The Inspiring Composers Music History Missed

Editor’s Note: The conspicuous absence of women from the historical canon of great classical composers is worth noting. There are myriad reasons behind that lack — women have historically been denied the ability to hold a job, access higher education, receive professional mentorship… The list is endless. Women composers were not given the opportunities to even really try, let alone be great, nor would they have been able to draw on a legacy of heroes who spoke their artistic language had they been. Women, as it turns out, were not even legally allowed to publish music under their own name for a significant chunk of our past.

A few years ago, a British student named Jessy McCabe made headlines with her petition to include female composers in the national A level curriculum. In response, journalist Damian Thompson wrote a much circulated op-ed titled “There’s a Good Reason There Are No Great Female Composers” that ultimately concluded the reason that artists like Fanny Mendelsson and Clara Schumann weren’t in the existing curriculum was because their compositions weren’t actually exceptional. True genius, he argued, is astoundingly rare, and given there were so few female composers, the odds are that the ones there were weren’t true geniuses.

What Thompson missed in his assessment — and the reason we feel so strongly about sharing the work of Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann — is that by scrutinizing women’s contribution to classical music note-by-note and failing to look at the context of their work, he’s reinforcing the exact same dangerous frame of mind that has kept women out of music for centuries. He doesn’t see these women as trailblazers, composing against great odds and without access to the education and mentorship of their peers; nor does he give them the credit they’re due for inspiring students like Jessy McCabe, or for producing music loved by millions, though clearly not to his personal taste.

To us, effective music education is as much about motivation and creating a space for vulnerability and experimentation as it is about an accurate accounting of musical “facts.” Reflecting on the “depth” of a piece cannot stop simply at an assessment of the notes on the page.

How we talk about composers affects who gets to fall in love with the act of composing and who goes on to produce great works of art themselves, a right that should be withheld from nobody. These days, we’re luckily able to study an incredible wealth of women composers from the 20th century, and watch new voices blossom each year. There’s still quite a bit of room left for improvement, but that’s a different story. Today, our mission is to tell the story of just two of these inspiring composers. Take it away, Brant!

~Jeremy Young, Editor-in-Chief

Fanny Mendelssohn (later, Fanny Hensel) was born in Hamburg in 1805, four years before her famous brother Felix. When the two were young, Fanny and Felix received piano instruction from their mother. Fanny was so prodigiously talented, that by the age of 13 she could play all 24 preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. By 1820, both siblings were showing great musical promise, and together they joined the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a music society led by Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter lavished Fanny with the highest praise, considering her reminiscent of Bach and superior in musical ability to her brother.

As Fanny’s skills continued to develop and she spent more time composing, she increasingly found herself limited by society’s attitudes towards women — even within her own home. Felix once wrote that he could not support her publishing music because she didn’t have the “temperament” to be an author, noting that she’d never be able to prioritize music over her role as a wife and mother. Felix wrote, “She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.” Their father, at one point, called composing “ornamental” to Fanny’s life.

Of her over 460 confirmed compositions (of which were approximately 250 lieder, many set to Goethe), a handful of her pieces were published under her brother’s name. Most were never officially published at all. With the support and encouragement of her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, she finally published a collection of songs in her own name in 1846, a year before she died.

Felix had great esteem for his sister’s musical advice, and the two shared such feedback regularly. Despite Felix’s unwavering opposition to the idea of Fanny publishing her own work, he did support the music she was making — publishing three of her songs each in his Op. 8 and 9 collections. At a private meeting with Queen Victoria, the Queen began to sing one of her favorite pieces of his, “Italien,” but Felix had to admit that the piece was in fact written by Fanny.

Here’s Fanny Mendelssohn’s spectacular, Das Jahr, cycle for piano (1841), which was not actually unearthed until 1989!

In 1847, at the age of 42, Fanny died of a stroke while rehearsing her brother’s oratorio, The First Walpurgis Night. Felix wrote a sixth string quartet in F minor dedicated to his dear sister’s memory. When he died, they were buried together.

Fanny has gained increasing recognition in the present day for her compositions, which are that much more impressive considering the social conditions she was composing under.

Her late work titled, Eastern Sonata, was lost for 140 years and has only recently been discovered. It’s been performed a handful of times around the world in the past year, but recordings have not yet been published.

Here’s another of Fanny’s late masterpiece Piano Trio, Opus 11 (1840).

Another female composer from the same era whose work was also criminally suppressed was Clara Schumann (née Clara Wieck in Leipzig in 1819). The daughter of a well-known singer in Leipzig, Clara took daily lessons in piano, violin, and music composition. After these lessons, her parents insisted she practice for two more hours a day. As a result, young Clara quickly grew proficient. And, at the age of 8, she was invited to play at a party for a local businessman.

Also invited to this party was a young law student nine years Clara’s senior, Robert Schumann. He was so impressed by Clara’s performance that he quit law school and went to live in the Wieck household so he could receive lessons from Clara’s father. Throughout his stay, Robert and Clara developed a closer and closer bond (Robert even memorably dressed up as a ghost to scare young Clara).

A piano phenom by 11, Clara began to perform across the major cities of Europe. She was an extraordinary success, being compared to Beethoven, and consistently playing to sold out crowds. Even Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, two of the most technically-gifted pianists of all time, and both well-known for their challenging piano compositions, praised her relentlessly.

As she grew older, Clara’s bond with Robert grew even deeper. When she turned 18, Robert proposed. After a three year legal battle with Clara’s disapproving father, the couple finally wed on September 12, 1840. Their marriage produced 8 children, who Clara cared for tirelessly. She worked hard to keep her house in order, and while she continued to practice and compose at home, her musical commitment and aspirations began to fall by the wayside, perhaps succumbing to the societal pressure to be a good wife and mother.

Robert even once remarked:

“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

Here’s her exceptional Liebesfrühling (Love’s Spring) written in 1841.

Clara and Robert composed and practiced together, their intense love for each other mirrored in their mutual love of music. They even published music together, like the above piece, which first appeared in a collection of lieder, nine written by Robert and three by Clara. The fact that the works were published together lead many at the time to assume that Clara was simply Robert’s assistant or student, rather than a veritable composer in her own right.

In addition to short songs, she composed works for orchestras and chamber ensembles, as well as concertos and fugues for solo instrumentalists.

One such piece, written late in her compositional career, is called Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (1855).

In 1854, after a failed suicide attempt, Robert Schumann was admitted to an insane asylum. He died there two years later. Throughout this time Clara was remarkably self-sufficient. She was forced into the position of being the family breadwinner and began to tour again, organizing her concerts herself. When one of her sons died, she adopted his children. She eventually became a teacher at the Hoch Conservatory, where she contributed numerous advances to modern piano technique.

Clara died in 1896, after a life of complete devotion to her children and uncompromising determination to promote her husband’s music. She was a remarkable pianist in her own right and left behind a number of extraordinary compositions.

In a funny twist of fate, Felix Mendelssohn had actually spent time with Clara Schumann and encouraged her to compose more, even offering to conduct the premiere of one of her piano concertos. One can only wonder what impact Clara and Fanny might have had in an era more accepting of female creative vision, drive, and genius.

And similarly, we can only imagine the infinite number of works that were never written in the intervening 300 years because of classical music’s failure to recognize Clara and Fanny as contributors to the classical canon — removing that source of inspiration and welcoming for all the aspiring female composers who came after them.

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Brant Wilson
Brant Wilson

Brant Wilson is an amateur musician and student based out of Indianapolis, Indiana with a special love for classical music and a goal to learn to play as many instruments as possible.