fanny mendelssohn & clara schumann

Fanny Mendelssohn (later Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel) and Clara Wieck (later Schumann for the purposes of this article) are two musicians who happen to be women AND superheroes. We recommend you make yourself a cup of tea and read through this haphazard sample of interesting morsels we discovered (predominantly) in two excellent books: Anna Beer’s “Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music” and Nancy B. Reich’s “Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman.” Hopefully we’ll hear more music from these composers in future concerts.

Fanny Mendelssohn Facts

Fanny had perfect pitch (of course), could play all 24 preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier from memory at age 13 (why not), and was regarded by some teachers and friends as being more gifted than her brother Felix.


A favourite Fanny Mendelssohn story is the time Queen Victoria invited Felix to Buckingham Palace, told him how much she loved his work, and it turned out it was actually Fanny’s:

Wealthy, Jewish & Female = no composing for YOU

In many narratives about women composers, there are two tropes: either they were 100% discouraged from pursuing music at all; or they bucked all the trends and did what they wanted. Fanny’s story is a lot more complex than that. As author Anna Beer points out in her book Sounds and Sweet Airs, part of Fanny’s discouragement from composing was largely due to class; the Mendelssohn family was wealthy, and it was not a good look for their daughter use her talents for money. They were also Jewish, and the spectre of rising anti-Semitism resulted in the Mendelssohns eventually converting to Christianity and adopting the surname “Bartholdy” – which is why you sometimes see Felix referred to as” – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Fanny’s beau Wilhelm

Very luckily for Fanny (and for us), marriage did not put an end to her composing, because she married Wilhelm Hensel, an artist who insisted she keep composing, and later (spoiler alert!) encouraged her to publish her music. (This is significant. Historically many women had to stop composing when they got married. See: Alma Mahler, Nannerl Mozart, and even Clara Schumann). Apparently, the Mendelssohn family didn’t think Wilhelm was all that great when he first showed up, so they told him to bug-off to Rome for 5 years (he did) and not to write letters to Fanny (he sent drawings instead). When they got married Fanny wrote her own wedding music – Pachabel’s Canon getting a little tired even in the 19th century.

Siblings – a talented pair

Throughout their lives, Felix and Fanny’s creative processes were highly collaborative: they bounced ideas off each other, edited each other’s music, and quoted each other’s melodies in their own compositions. This is an important point because a lot of people talk about Fanny’s music in the context of Felix’s, but then we still study Felix’s music like it was created in a vacuum and That’s Not OK. This woman wrote 460+ pieces of music!

Fanny’s Concerts

Due to various contexts imposed on her by 1800 Germany, Fanny wasn’t supposed to perform, conduct or compose outside of the home. For most people this is would mean the end of a career, but Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was not ‘most people.’ She solved the problem by simply opening up her home. The Mendelssohn family lived in a massive mansion (plainly put, they were loaded) so Fanny started hosting these musical gatherings at her house that ended up being the hottest tickets in Berlin. These events were the real deal.

There were rehearsals, full audiences, and official printed programs. It was the first stop for any international artist hoping to make it in Germany – even Franz Liszt was in frequent attendance. She even had a higher standard of etiquette than most concert halls, requiring that the audience remain quiet during performances (which was not common at the time, people were used to eating, drinking and gossiping throughout concerts).

“When Berlioz will have placed the 50 pianos he considers necessary, I would advise him to place a wet nurse with a nursing child who hasn’t been fed for a few hours to be place next to each. I’m convinced that the public, especially the mothers of the children would be very moved.”

Fanny had thoughts about Berlioz

Fanny and the Schumanns

“Tristan and Isolde is the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life.” – Clara Schumann

Fanny gained a LOT of musical power and influence knowing the Schumanns, although there’s no sugar-coating it: she did the best with what she had and was still closed off from the public musical life her brother was allowed to live. And she had to work with a lot of amateurs:

“Recently I’ve been rehearsing and performing a great deal of music. If only once I could have as many rehearsals as I wanted. I really believe I have a talent for working out pieces and making the interpretation clear to people. But oh, the dilettantes!”

Fanny publishes under her own name

After decades of writing music (song cycles, choral works, a symphonic overture, sonatas, a massive piano work that defies labels) she finally plucked up the courage to say “stuff the system” and publish her music under her own name. “Under her own name” because previously she worked with Felix to publish some of her music under HIS name, which is what led to the whole Queen Victoria debacle. At the age of 40, when she published her Opus 1 in her own name, she wrote, “I feel as if newly born.”

It was a new chapter in her life, the possible start of a long, brilliant career as a great composer—but heartbreakingly, she had a stroke while rehearsing a new piece of music and died at age 41. The fact that she died so young, the overwhelming sentiment that women couldn’t compose, the rise of anti-Semitism: all these contributed to the burying of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s legacy.

” It must be a sign of talent that I do not give up, though I can get nobody to take an interest in my efforts.”

Fanny Mendelssohn

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann was a force of nature. In addition to being one of the greatest, most influential artists of the 19th century, she was the family’s breadwinner, had eight kids, and cared for an increasingly unwell husband while maintaining the kind of non-stop career in the public eye that so many artists, male or female, would have killed for.

Clara is basically why you know about Robert Schumann

Do you want to know why Robert Schumann’s music an essential part of the classical music canon today? Because Clara Schumann used her fame and influence to convince a reluctant public that his music was good and she did that until the end of her life.

She invented the classical concert

By the way, in case you needed a reminder, Clara Schumann is also the reason classical musicians give solo concerts and perform from memory today. She started doing this when she was a child. Performing without sheet music and doing a whole concert program without other people was a new thing.

Clara Schumann’s Dad

She had a controlling stage-dad who recognized her gifts and moulded her into a prodigy. Some of what he did was top level pedagogy, and some of it was straight up abuse. He restricted her relationship with her mother (they divorced when Clara was little), wrote her diary for her, and dictated every waking moment of her young life. (When a youngish Robert Schumann visited her house he witnessed Clara’s dad beating and screaming at one of her brothers while Clara calmly practiced piano, which understandably freaked him out). So you could argue that Clara owed her fame, skill, freakish technique, and insane musicality to her dad. That didn’t stop her from suing him when he wouldn’t let her marry Robert. She basically went “thanks for the career, dad, but you’re kind of terrible and I’m done with you controlling my life, BYE” (And she reconnected with her mum!)

From Clara’s Father’s diary: “Clara is often now so inconsiderate, domineering, full of unreasonable opposition, intolerably disobedient, rude, prickly, blunt, monstrously lazy, capriciously vain about rags [clothes] (we cannot even speak about other kinds of vanity because she no longer has the slightest interest in her art – and certainly no time to study – since she gets up at nine o’clock and isn’t ready till half past ten, then receives visitors, is invited to dinner at noon, and in the afternoon is desperately unhappy should she have to play, because then she is only thinking of the theatre – and of gentlemen). In short, what is to become of her, God only knows – she certainly cannot remain at home. I will be irritated with her for the rest of my life; I can hardly enjoy anything about her without grief. A day doesn’t pass when she doesn’t vex me with all the things I mentioned. If I were not here, she would not perfect one single piece. She is so distracted that as a rule she doesn’t even know if she is playing and her obstinacy about it all distorts her face. I will not be able to sell the pianos because she is so heedless that she is continually finding fault with them, complaining to other people how difficult they are to play and giving them a bad reputation.”

Clara made life difficult for her abusive and controlling father, who was a piano maker, by going around telling everyone his pianos weren’t very good.

Fearless lioness mum

When the May Uprising in Dresden happened, she walked right through the front lines (armed soldiers everywhere), scooped up her kids, and took them out of the city. Then she walked back into the city again to fetch her remaining kids. Oh and by the way she was pregnant during this.

She was a bona fide super celebrity

We can’t overstate what a massive celebrity Clara Schumann was:

“A concert on March 1, 1841, her first solo appearance since her marriage, was the great reward for her care and patience; it generated public acknowledgement of her husband as an important composer, provided the contact with the public which was so essential to her, and gave Robert the opportunity to show his appreciation of her playing. The occasion was a benefit concert conducted by Mendelssohn for the Gewandhaus orchestra pension fund. In the history of music, this date is remembered as the premier of Robert Schumann’s First (Spring) Symphony, but in Leipzig the orchestral masterpiece was only one of many works in the program and was overshadowed by Clara’s reappearance in her native town.”

Here is an account of her receiving applause from a concert for a straight hour-and-a half.

“Clara is the talk of the town and the other artists are butting their heads together in despair..[….] Triumph, triumph. Clara created a furor last night. Her masterly playing was rewarded by an hour and a half of thunder and bravissimos […] Even Paganini did not have such accolades here.”

” He gives me the impression of being a spoilt child.”

Clara Schumann (on Liszt)

We also need to remember that because she was such a massive deal her earnings far exceeded Robert Schumann’s and she kept the family running:

“In all the marital disputes over her career, the question of money loomed large. “We need more than we earn,” Robert wrote in February 1843. They both knew she could earn more in one three-week concert tour than Schumann obtained from composing and editing in a year. Glorying in her skill as a performing artist and manager, this daughter of Friedrich Wieck never considered that her husband’s pride might suffer.”

We don’t want to make you feel bad about yourself, but Clara Schumann wrote half a sonata in a week because she had a meeting with Liszt and had to do the Christmas shopping.

December 1841 had been a turbulent month for the Schumanns. Since Franz Liszt’s arrival in Leipzig 1 December, they were caught up in a whirl of social events, dinners and concerts (two of which Clara participated in). After his departure on the 18th, Clara and Robert then had to cope with “the Christmas bustle…the running around and shopping.”

There is so much more we could cover but you can read more – here are two excellent, accessible and fascinating books about Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel that I can heartily recommend:

Anna Beer’s “Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music” and Nancy B. Reich’s “Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman”

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