Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn: Music as a Profession and an Ornament


Vincent and Theo • Wilbur and Orville • George and Ira • Jack and Bobby

Some people are forever linked in history to their siblings.

In most cases, we bother to learn little or nothing about a historic person’s siblings. George Washington had a brother Lawrence who played a significant role in shaping his life. Lawrence, however, generally, gets lost in the history books. I doubt, however, that few people will ever read about Vincent van Gogh without also reading about his brother Theo. The same is true for Wilbur and Orville Wright, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kennedy and his brother Bobby. It’s probably not even possible to learn about one of the Marx Brothers without learning about the other four.

Some siblings are even linked in death. Theo van Gogh died six months after Vincent and is buried next to him at Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Bobby Kennedy died less than five years after his brother and is buried close to him at Arlington cemetery.

And any list of siblings connected by history would be incomplete without including Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

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Every classical music lover knows about Felix Mendelssohn. More than 160 years after his death his music remains a standard component of the classical repertoire. When hearing Mendelssohn's music we can’t help but want to know something about the man who composed it, and when we examine his life we inevitably learn about Fanny, the sister who shared his talents but not his opportunities.

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Fanny was four years older than Felix, born in 1805 as the first child of well-to-do Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany. Much was expected of children born into the Mendelssohn family. Fanny’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a respected philosopher. Her father Abraham was a well-to-do banker, and her mother Lea was a highly educated taskmaster, a woman determined to give her children the best education possible.

The Mendelssohns were an intellectual and ambitious family, unwilling to let anything hold them back. In 1811 they moved to Berlin, a city with more opportunities than provincial Hamburg. By the early 1820s the entire family had converted to Lutheranism and changed their name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Abraham and Lea did not want the prejudice and discrimination against Jews affecting their children.

When Fanny was born her mother proclaimed she had “Bach-fugue fingers” and begin giving her piano lessons at age six. After the family moved to Berlin, Fanny took lessons with a master pianist named Ludwig Berger. It was clear to anyone who met Fanny that she was a prodigy.

Felix also began taking piano lessons at age six. Like Fanny, he was a musical prodigy and also studied with Ludwig Berger. At age ten he learned to write counterpoint from Carl Zelter, as did his sister. Both Fanny and Felix began composing when they were children and were both more advanced than Mozart at a comparable age.

Everything changed for Fanny when she turned fifteen. Her parents told her she must abandon music and prepare for marriage and motherhood. Her father said, “Music will perhaps become Felix’s profession. For you it can and must be only an ornament.” The Mendelssohns were a proper family, not about to challenge social mores regarding the role of woman.

Felix gained great fame and adulation as a composer, conductor, and pianist. His works were performed by the finest orchestras in Europe.
Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed when he was only seventeen, received rave reviews after its first performance. He was twenty when the Hebrides Overture played to rapturous applause.

He began conducting when he was nineteen and quickly gained a reputation as a virtuosic and innovative leader of orchestras and choirs. He was the first to use a baton and the first to create a repertoire of masterworks from the past. At age twenty he conducted Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion, a piece that had not been heard since Bach’s death seventy-nine years early. The performance resurrected an almost forgotten composer and created a mania for all things Bach. The great composer Hector Berlioz said, “There is but one God — Bach — and Mendelssohn is his prophet.”

At age twenty-six Felix became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the most prestigious conducting jobs of the time. He soon turned the Gewandhuas into the best orchestra in the world. When he was thirty-four he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music. He was, quite simply, one of the most successful and well-known musicians of his time.

Fanny, on the other hand, had been denied a career in music by her parents, as well as the cult of domesticity that limited women's opportunities in European society. The fact that she was as talented as her brother made no difference. Instead of setting the musical world on fire, Fanny read about her brother's success in the newspapers. Felix traveled throughout Europe while she stayed home. Felix conducted great orchestras while she played in amateur quartets. Felix became an international superstar. She remained unknown to the general public.

At age twenty Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel. The day after her wedding Wilhelm handed her a piece of manuscript paper and asked her to return to music and begin composing again. With the support of her husband, Fanny resumed her life in music, but only as an amateur. After several miscarriages she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel in honor of her favorite composers. When she wasn't taking care of her son, she hosted musical salons and organized a small chorus. She also composed songs and wrote short pieces for piano. She would compose almost 500 pieces of music, and seven collections of songs were eventually published under her name.

Fanny nevertheless remained unknown to the public during her lifetime. European culture would simply not accept music composed by a woman. Felix secretly published several of her songs under his own name, songs that gained wide exposure and popular approval. On one of Felix’s many visits to England he met Queen Victoria who raved about the song “Italien.” Felix created a slight controversy when he confessed that his sister had written the song.

On May 14, 1847, Fanny was playing the piano with a chamber group when her hands went numb. The next day she died of a stroke. She was forty-two years old.

Felix, distraught over the loss of his sister, was too emotionally upset even to attend her funeral. Over the next few months his health deteriorated and less than six months after his sister died he was killed by a stroke. He was thirty-eight.

Today, in a graveyard outside Berlin, Fanny and Felix are buried next to each other, joined forever in death. Felix was a composer for the ages, gaining the fame that history grants to few artists. His story, however, can never be told without also telling the story of his sister Fanny, a woman of prodigious talent who was born at the wrong time in history.

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Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn Burial Site



Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Larghetto from Song Without Words, Op. 8, No.3, Elzbieta Sternlicht, pianist


Felix Mendelssohn, Fantasy in F#, "Scottish Sonata," Op.28, Murray Perahia, pianist




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Erik Satie: Born Into an Old World


“I was born very young into a world very old.”
– Erik Satie

Erik Satie (1866-1925) lived his looney life with a playful attitude. He was often overcome by unexpected fits of laughter. He wore nothing but gray velvet and carried black velvet umbrellas. During a love affair with a woman named Suzanne, he bought her a necklace made of sausages and said he liked the way she belched. His playfulness was even evident in the titles of his musical compositions:
  • “Genuine Limp Preludes (For a Dog)"
  • “Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Boob Made of Wood"
  • “Waltz of the Mysterious Kiss in the Eye"
  • “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”
Satie's music is often described as “wallpaper” music. It's easy to understand the musical elements, and the music is comforting in how it affects its listeners. His Gnossiennne No. 1, for example, provides music that is quite somber and beautiful. (By the way, “Gnossienne” is a word that didn’t exist until Satie created it as a title for this piece.)




And here's a version of Satie’s well-known
Gymnopédie No. 1, performed and animated by Stephen Malinowski. Malinowski describes Gymnopédie No. 1 as a "languorous melody moving just once (or less) each beat, accompanied by one bass note and one chord per measure.” If you enjoy watching this version, visit Malinowski's YouTube Channel, where it’s not difficult to become a fan of his animated work.


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Brahms and Tchaikovsky: A Lesson for All of Us


Two icons of classical music were born on May 7 — Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

In addition to sharing a birthdate, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a traditionalist approach to composing music that had their contemporaries placing them on the same side during the
Romantic “wars” of the late 1800s. They were both viewed by their defenders as standing in opposition to the "art of the future" coming from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky were also united by history in offering a lesson in how to separate "the person" from "the work." Although Brahms and Tchaikovsky had much in common as composers and liked each other personally, neither one liked the music of the other.

Tchaikovsky, especially, seemed to detest the music that Brahms composed.

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.... Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.” (1866)

“Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.'" (1878)

Brahms' view of Tchaikovsky’s music was not as vitriolic, but was nevertheless critical. Brahms disliked Tchaikovsky’s
Orchestral Suite No. 1, except the first movement. History also provides a story stemming from Brahms’ attendance of a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that, if true, provides evidence of Brahms’ indifference to Tchaikovsky’s music. According to legend, Brahms slept through the entire rehearsal. Legend or not (it may have been nothing more than a symptom of Brahms’ sleep apnea), it is true that Brahms later told Tchaikovsky he did not like the symphony.

In spite of these differences both men seemed to enjoy the company of the other.

They met only twice. The first time was in January 1888 when Tchaikovsky was on a tour of western Europe and attended a rehearsal of Brahms’
Piano Trio No. 3 in Leipzig. Tchaikovsky expected to meet a “conceited” celebrity, a man who was certain to behave with pomposity and arrogance. Instead, Brahms treated Tchaikovsky with warmth and kindness. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for Brahms, admiration that may have been enhanced by the alcohol they shared at a party after the rehearsal.

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Johannes Brahms

“I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories."

They met again the following year in Hamburg when Tchaikovsky toured western Europe a second time. After a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the same rehearsal that may have put Brahms to sleep, the two men shared a meal. As they sat together, Brahms provided harsh criticism of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. In turn, Tchaikovsky confessed his aversion to Brahms’ compositional style. In spite of the mutually disparaging remarks, the two men seemed to have enjoyed each other’s company and parted as friends. Tchaikovsky even invited Brahms to visit him in Russia, a trip Brahms was never able to make.

Photo of Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Is all this a contradiction? How could two men admire each other so much on a personal level, yet have such a low opinion of the other’s creative output? For me, their story is a great lesson in how to separate a person’s character from their productive work.

The same lesson can be found in looking at the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two men who were hostile political opponents in the early years of United States history. Twice they ran against each other for president in bitterly contested elections, with Adams winning in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. After Jefferson’s presidency ended, however, the two began a written correspondence in which they demonstrated a genuine admiration for each other in spite of their political and philosophical differences.

As a U.S. history teacher, I often used the Adams-Jefferson story to demonstrate how political and philosophical differences do not require us to demonize our opponents. It is possible, as I liked to tell students, not to sanction the product of someone’s public work and yet still enjoy their company socially — to like them as a person. I suppose the opposite is also true. We might approve of someone’s public work but not like them as a person.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be used to teach the same lesson.

Adams and Jefferson both died on the same day — July 4, 1826. Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both born on the same date — May 7. The stories of both friendships can by used as lessons in how human beings might live together, and even like each other, in spite of their differences.


Brahms, Symphony No. 1, Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker


Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony




© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)

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Schubert, Notturno in E-flat major (1827)

Franz Schubert was born 219 years ago (January 31, 1797), and his music sounds as beautiful today as ever. The Notturno in E-flat major is one of many soulful masterpieces from the heart of one of history's greatest composers. I can almost guarantee it will be a piece you will want to hear again and again.

The piece is composed in
ternary (ABA) form. Use the time indicators below to identify the beginning of each section in the Eggner Trio's performance.
  • 0:00 – Section A
  • 2:25 – Section B
  • 4:50 – Section A1
  • 6:10 – Section B1
  • 7:48 – Section A2
Enjoy!


Eggner Trio

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Elgar, Enigma Variation, No. 9, "Nimrod" (1899)

“Nimrod,” an Old Testament hunter, was Edward Elgar's nickname for his publisher and closest friend, Augustus Jaeger. Elgar appreciated Jaeger for always encouraging him as an artist and wrote the following piece to represent the summer evening that he spent listening to Jaeger talk about Beethoven’s adagios. The Nimrod Variation is the most famous of the fourteen “Enigma Variations" and has become a standard piece of music for solemn ceremonies and other dignified occasions.


Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 3 in E major (1832)

"After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own." – Oscar Wilde


Valentina Lisitsa, piano
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Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1824)

Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)

According to
CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December  2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume. 

"If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie

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Borodin, Polovtsian Dance No. 17 (1897)

Music was only a hobby for Alexander Borodin, a Russian physician and chemist who worked tirelessly for women’s rights. In addition to the great music he composed, his legacy includes a School of Medicine for Women, which he established in St. Petersburg in 1872. What a guy! Make sure you stay with this video beyond the beautiful opening themes and don’t miss all the fun that begins at 4:06.


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Sommernachtskonzert
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Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy (1908)

Kirill Petrenko, a 43-year-old Russian-Austrian conductor, has recently been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. Petrenko will replace Sir Simon Rattle, who has served as principal conductor since 2002. Rattle will leave the Berlin Philharmonic in August 2018.


Kirill Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012
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Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo (1890)

Here’s a wonderful performance of one of classical music’s most beautiful pieces of music. Mascagni inserted this interlude into his opera Cavallaria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) to denote the passage of time. If it sounds familiar, you may have heard it in the film Raging Bull. (The music begins at 0:40 after much encouragement from the audience for an encore.)


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Gothenburg Symphony
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Strauss, Don Quixote, Finale (1898)

Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to tell the fictional story an old shepherd who had read too many books about chivalrous knights and imagined himself as the personification of chivalry. In the finale of Richard Strauss’s musical version of the story, the Don dies and says farewell to his dreams.The cello, representing Don Quixote, grows fainter — and finally silent — as the Don dies.


Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)
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Paganini, Caprice No. 24 (1809)

The legend of Niccolò Paganini includes a story that his mother made a pact with the devil and traded his soul for musical virtuosity. Not true, of course. Like most great musicians, he was probably just born with some natural talent and then worked like a dog to develop that talent.


Alexander Markov, violin
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