Resurrecting Fanny Mendelssohn

OF MUSIC, GENDER, AND CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

When it comes to gender issues, Christians today usually find ourselves in a corrective or even a defensive posture. We’re often the only voices that can be heard insisting that, yes, gender is a real thing and it does make a difference, while the rest of the world, in a headstrong quest for freedom, claims that no, it isn’t and it doesn’t.

Christians in every age are called to stand against that age’s particular sins and follies, and our own calling in this age is no different. As those who believe in God’s unique design for humanity, we must stand by that belief and call others back to it. That said, we must also be careful not to undermine our case by rushing to the opposite extreme: making gender even more important than it is, and using it as a tool to raise some at the expense of others.

This is the very error in previous generations that helped lead so many in this one to want to do away with gender altogether. Doubling down on that error only polarizes everyone even further — and worse than that, it denies the image of God in our fellow human beings.

Take the case of Fanny Mendelssohn.

Fanny was the sister of the great 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn — and a gifted composer and pianist in her own right. As reported in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and other outlets, Felix sometimes got credit for Fanny’s work — all the more so because, while he was encouraged to pursue a career in music, she was strongly discouraged from doing so.

Smithsonian Magazine recounts, “While Fanny’s father encouraged his daughter to perform in the family home, he believed it would be indecent for a woman of her status to pursue any kind of career. ‘[The Mendelssohn family was] very high class, and a high class woman did not appear publicly as a professional,” [music historian Angela Mace] Christian explains. ‘Publicity was associated with loose morals and possibly amoral behavior.'” Apparently, that was all right for men, but not for women.

But Fanny composed nonetheless — with strong encouragement from her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel. Their great-great-great granddaughter Sheila Hayman writes, “He said he wouldn’t marry Fanny unless she carried on composing; and every morning of their marriage, before he went off to paint, he would put a piece of blank manuscript paper on her music stand and tell her he wanted to see it filled up when he returned.” In 1829, at age 22, Fanny Mendelssohn recorded in her diary the composition and performance of an “Easter Sonata” for piano.

So it’s odd that, when the long-lost manuscript of such a sonata turned up with “F. Mendelssohn” written on it, it was attributed to Felix, not to Fanny, and recorded with his name on the record. While the initials might have been the same, it was Fanny, not Felix, who had actually left a written record of composing an Easter Sonata. (A letter from a friend of Fanny’s also refers to the sonata as hers.) And there were stylistic differences that caught the ear of Angela Mace Christian.

When Christian, however, challenged the attribution, the collector who owned the manuscript, Henri-Jacques Coudert, begged to differ. His argument was (and remains) that the sonata is “too masculine . . . too violent” to have been written by a woman. The irony is, Felix Mendelssohn’s own music has never been characterized as particularly masculine or violent. Unlike many of his Romantic contemporaries, who tended to write weighty, dramatic works, Mendelssohn was known largely for light, graceful, often sunny music.

It took some intensive detective work for Christian to prove once and for all that the Easter Sonata was Fanny Mendelssohn’s — and in the process, strike a decisive blow against the idea that gender dictates style. (Coudert still doesn’t buy it.) But earlier this month, 188 years after she wrote it, it had its premiere performance under her name, broadcast on BBC Radio, where you can listen to it for seven more days. A reviewer for The Telegraph called the work “an astonishing piece of restless energy and burning spiritual aspiration,” steeped in religious allusion and symbolism.

If there’s one thing that emerges clearly from this story, it’s that Fanny Mendelssohn’s age had its own set of issues with gender — and, if Coudert’s attitude is any indication, that we’re still dealing with that age’s cultural hangover. Not that anything could stop her from using her God-given musical gifts. As her descendant writes,

Fanny composed. She couldn’t help it. She was a creative artist like her brother, driven to write music, live and breathe it, and use it to express whatever happened to her. She wrote her own wedding music, the night before the ceremony, when Felix failed to deliver on his promise to do so. She nursed the family through a cholera epidemic, then wrote a Cholera Cantata when it was all over.

Fanny’s mind and spirit were indomitable in the face of dismissal and discouragement. Because of that, we have today a treasure trove of beautiful music that she wrote. (Here’s another recommended sample of it.) But how much better it would have been for her and her music if she had been encouraged, as her brother was, instead of dismissed. She might even have received more credit for her own work!

A creative gift like that of Fanny Mendelssohn is, as Dorothy L. Sayers put it in “The Mind of the Maker,” a reflection of the image of God, who gave us His own “desire and . . . ability to make things.” It follows, then, that to suppress or limit someone’s ability to use such a gift for arbitrary reasons is an offense to the God who gave her that gift. What her family saw as good reason to hold her back was nothing more than cultural convention — and, as we’ve established, that’s a pretty poor foundation to build a worldview on, particularly when it comes to gender issues.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Fanny’s newly discovered authorship was of an Easter Sonata. The correct attribution of her work after all this time is a resurrection — and a reminder that the God who created the genders gives good gifts, without restraint, to both.

Special thanks to Warren Cole Smith and Roberto Rivera. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog, and the author of “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” (Baker, June 2017).


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  • thinkingabovemypaygrade

    I remember years back when the women’s movement became vocal. Many Christian leaders…thru sermons or publications…reacted mostly against the offensive excesses of the women’s movement.

    A few actually examined valid issues…back then being abuses by husbands…and pay equity. After some foot dragging (so it seemed to me) Christians did usually get on board with some of the valid issues.

    I worked for a Christian business that practiced blatant favoritism towards men in some practices I and other women observed. When I left the organization…some Christian women managers were working…with tact and dignity…to rectify the unjust situation. If they were able to do so…they surely saved their employer from the bad publicity of a civil rights lawsuit which would likely have been easy for the victims to win.

    I recently found my analysis showing that this profit making business was paying me a below-survival wage…for a job requiring decent office skills.A female manager told me that her male peer made much more more than she did. Since I never saw a news story about Christian company X unjustly underpaying some female employees…I am guessing these Christian women..made their case. (Many would recognize the company’s name were I to mention it here.)

    So this article brings up the same principle. Have we looked carefully at all the gender related grievances? Perhaps some grievances are just. And Christians should work for justice.