‘Paradoxes: The Life and Music of Fanny’ Hensel

A woman composer? No way! Get back into the house where you belong, little miss!

This attitude, although not as pervasive as in 19th century Europe, still existed in Canada when I was growing up. As a teenager in the mid-1950s I was awarded first prize in a competition adjudicated by a renowned British man who praised me for playing the piano “like a man.”  In 1960, as a music student at the University of Toronto, the European head of the music department scolded my piano teacher in front of me, saying that I should not be allowed to learn the Brahms Piano Concerto in Dm because it was “a man’s work.” In the first instance, my parents, teacher and I were beside ourselves with joy after I received this “tremendous compliment.” In the second case, my piano teacher was angry and stood up for my rights, informing me that a there was absolutely no reason a woman could not play the Brahms Piano Concerto. Attitudes were beginning to change. Over the years, oppressive societal attitudes have cheated many women of the choice for a full life of academic scholarship and creative activity.

During my 26 years teaching in the music department at Mount Allison, I put on many concerts of piano solos and ensemble music by women something quite new and thrilling for Maritime audiences. One of my fellow professors, soprano Patricia Lee, frequently collaborated with me in recitals and lectures featuring vocal music composed by women, from Hildegaard to Coulthard. Some of the music had recently been “discovered” by female musicologists, so it was absolutely new to all of us.

The emergence of music scores by Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, among others, was charged with excitement for me. I would liken my experience of learning and performing these works to what it might feel like to uncover an historically significant artifact during a dig.

So it was with a warm and happy heart that I witnessed Paradoxes: The Life and Music of Fanny Hensel on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at the Marjorie Young Bell Conservatory of Music. A co-production of the departments of music and drama, this 21st century theatrepiece was an potpourri of delights and exciting discoveries from start to finish.

Essentially, Paradoxes was a celebration of the music and a dramatization of the life of Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, whose compositional triumphs were achieved despite the prevailing attitude at the time that a woman’s proper place was in the home doing housework and raising a family. A gifted pianist and composer, Fanny’s compositions could not be kept under wraps even by her brother, the celebrated Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most influential musicians of his time. Fanny knew that her work was good, and so did others – some of whom praised it as being better than the compositions of her brother. To be published, however, presented as great a challenge for women composers as for women writers.

The imaginative staging of Sunday’s event was guided by Mt. A’s director of drama, Glen Nichols, as well as co-director and playwright Jena McLean. Five fine young actors dressed in spectacular period costumes Amie Riley as Fanny, Colton O’Shea as Felix, Hannah Tuck as their mother Lea, Mark Turner as their father Abraham, and Brandon Steel as Fanny’s husband Wilhelm Hensel brought Hensel’s musical and personal life to the audience in dramatic vignettes strategically situated throughout the show. Between these vignettes were performances of Hensel’s music: solo songs, chorale music, piano solos and a four-movement string quartet. The flow of dramatic scenes and music was seamless.

Gayle h Martin, professor and organist in the department of music, had her hands full as music director. Under Martin’s nuanced baton, the Elliott Chorale, a small professional-quality ensemble comprised of mainly undergraduate singers, sang many beautiful Hensel songs throughout the program.

Paradoxes began a half hour early in the atrium of the Conservatory, where entering guests were treated to a gorgeous performance of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 by members of the Atlantic String Machine from P.E.I. The quartet performed in the upper ring of the atrium while the audience sat below in chairs placed in a semi-circle around the beaming sculpture of Marjorie Young Bell. Between five scenes, which introduced all of the characters, we were treated to four pieces written by Fanny between the ages of 14 and 18. These lovely songs, two with lyrics about birds, reverberated in the acoustically lively Atrium, making me feel as if I were listening to the “merry birds” in the midst of a forest.

At their conclusion, the audience moved quietly into the adjacent Brunton Auditorium, where the delightful sounds of a piano wafted into our ears. There on the stage, illuminated by golden light, was a beautiful young woman dressed in black, her long dark hair stylishly accented with a corsage of brilliant red flowers. She was playing selections of a French Suite of J.S. Bach, one of the composers who had the greatest influence on the young Fanny. Christelinda Laureijs, the pianist, is the gifted 15-year-old student of former Mt. A piano teacher Penelope Mark.

Morgan Reid, Emily Steers and Sarah Sharpe, three fine voice students presently studying at Mt. A, performed solos between the next several scenes. As I looked at these singers, each stunningly attired in black and singing with fervour and passion, I was struck by the realization that these young women are just about the age Fanny was when she composed the songs. Their accomplished collaborative pianist, Martine Jomphe, provided support and musical insight to their interpretations. The warmth and depth of Sharpe’s voice, in particular, made an indelible impression on me as she sang Nachtwanderer.

During the Interlude which followed, listeners strolled into a lounge area and nearby room, where photographs by Thaddeus Holownia were displayed on easels. His famous banquet camera black and white studies of the area around Sackville are well known to most of us, and it was fascinating to also see them projected later as a backdrop to performances on the Brunton stage. It was at just about Fanny’s time in the late 1830s that photography was born. After a short but intense period of experimentation with ways of transferring visual images to copper and other materials, the banquet camera made its appearance, so the idea of combining Hensel’s music and life with Holownia’s “recordings” on film of life’s still moments was brilliant. It also helped me to understand why Hensel was so eager to get her compositions “into print.” She very wisely intuited that the “permanent” recording of photographic images and music notation on paper was to become crucially important to the success and longevity of creative works from that point on.

During the interlude, I swooned over one of Ed Knuckles’ delicious chocolates, which were being offered near the photographs, and then stood to listen to the Elliott Chorale raise their voices together in Nachtreigen, a powerful, thrilling contrapuntal song, composed by Fanny to a text written by her husband. Martin inspired them to do some of the best singing I have ever heard from this ensemble. (I couldn’t help but remember that when I was growing up, there was no such thing as a “woman conductor.”)

Fanny Hensel’s String Quartet in E Major was written in 1834 when she was 29 years of age. In this work I noticed the development of her writing skill and the deepening maturity of her musical content. I wondered if Fanny had a special cellist friend, since one movement of the quartet featured a spectacular virtuoso section for cello, played with electric panache by Natalie Williams Calhoun. Movements of the quartet were placed between vignettes leading to the death of Fanny’s mother, Lea.

I felt increasingly moved by the actors’ portrayal of the family drama and was especially drawn to Fanny herself, played with spirit and lively emotion by Amie Riley. Sporting bouncy ringlets at the sides of her fashionable, tightly-coiffed hairdo, Fanny was portrayed as a powerful, intelligent, creative, spunky, charming young woman. And stubborn, too! She had to stand up to her very traditional father, and later, repeatedly, to her composer brother, Felix.

Two of the high points of the program were saved until the end: solo piano works entitled January and February, drawn from Hensel’s collection Das Jahr performed by Jomphe and Lynn Johnson. Jomphe’s strong, dramatic playing and Johnson’s virtuoso keyboard pyrotechnics brought the event to a sparkling close, followed by enthusiastic curtain calls that went on for several minutes.

Paradoxes was a great success and a fine example of what can blossom when fine arts departments collaborate in a creative way to bring a slice of history to life. To hear so much of Fanny Hensel’s work at one time was important. I gained new appreciation for this composer’s work, and a renewed zest to continue the fight for the equality of woman in every way.

Thank go to everyone involved, including the President’s Research and Creative Activities Fund, the Mount Allison Independent Student Research Grant Program and to Riverview High School for providing costumes.

Janet Hammock