By Marissa Pueschel
Two of the most outstanding female composers of the nineteenth century were Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Hensel and Robert Schumann’s wife Clara. While their talents were respected by their male relatives, the two women responded to the challenges of breaking into the male-dominated world of music in different ways. While Hensel found an audience in the privacy of the century’s salon culture, Schumann spent her adolescence touring Europe, and continued to perform and compose into adulthood.
Hensel’s musical education was very similar to her brother’s. They spent hours learning side by side, under the same teachers. The common musical abilities and interests they acquired led to a close relationship between the two, enabling them to stimulate and challenge each other musically and intellectually throughout their lives. Hensel advised Mendelssohn on many of his later compositions, including St Paul. Mendelssohn valued his sister’s opinion, calling her his ‘chief music critic.’
Music became Mendelssohn’s profession; it could never be so for Hensel. Her father made this clear to her in a letter articulating a typified nineteenth century position: ‘perhaps music will be Felix’s profession, whereas for you for you it can and must be only an ornament, and never the ‘fundamental bass’ of your existence and activity.’ While men were expected to embrace the exciting mechanical, financial and cultural changes of the Industrial Revolution, women were relied on to ‘preserve equilibrium’, by remaining in the traditional domestic role.
Hensel’s middle-class background was as much of a hindrance to her pursuing a public career in music as her gender: it was considered damaging for a woman of secure fortune to enter a profession which had lower class associations. Even so, she did give one ground-breaking public performance, premiering Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in February 1838. There is no doubting her proficiency at the keyboard: her mother commented on her ‘Bachian fingers’ almost the instant she was born. Her background, on the other hand, did allow her to display her talents in the private sphere. Like her female ancestors, Hensel exerted much creative energy as a salon hostess. She even ‘managed to transform her private salon into a semi-public concert hall’ – unique in the musical world of her day.
Hensel’s talent became focused on expanding the lied and piano repertoire – small-scale compositions, ideally suited to the salon and domestic performance. This created private music-making of the highest quality which delighted her contemporaries. History, however, has not looked kindly upon this important area of nineteenth century music. The monumental genres – particularly the symphony – able to fill the large concert halls being built all over Europe, were, for a long time, considered more important to the history of composition. Mendelssohn seized such opportunities. That Hensel set the musical world alight in an equally successful manner is a view that has only recently begun to be taken seriously.
Despite her genius, Hensel doubted her musical talents. She was also very aware that she was a woman composer in a male-dominated field. She constantly strove for approval in her letters to her brother. Although he gave his approval often, he actively discouraged her from publishing her 400 compositions. Some of Hensel’s compositions appeared under her brother’s name; it was only in the last two years of her life that she decided to publish under her own. She chose the famous Schwanenlied to head the first group of songs printed; the renowned piano trio in D minor was published as Opus 11. Reasons for Mendelssohn’s discouragement are unclear, but it can be speculated that he may have feared that it would have reflected badly on the state of family finances if she was apparently publishing out of financial necessity. As a result of Hensel’s compositions remaining within the salon, and her death before the handful published made an impact, her compositional output had little effect on her life other than providing pleasure.
Unlike Hensel, Clara Schumann did enter the public sphere as a woman composer and performer. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, in direct contrast to Hensel’s, did everything possible to ensure that his daughter had a successful career. A respected piano teacher, Wieck taught Clara himself, and encouraged her to compose. As well as accompanying her on tours until she turned 19, he made her copy his letters into her diary, to teach her how to conduct the business arrangements of a musical career. Many biographers have condemned this as excess, yet Clara herself frequently acknowledged all her father’s help.
Clara was nine years old when she gave her first public concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Whereas Hensel only performed once in public, Clara went on to perform another 78 times at the Gewandhaus. Furthermore, Clara made sure to include at least one work of her own in every performance to promote her compositional skill. Since people listened to her as composer and performer simultaneously, she achieved renown in both fields.
Despite her achievements, Clara, like Hensel, saw herself as unremarkable. In some respects, marrying Robert Schumann helped, because he boosted her confidence, encouraged her to compose, and helped her to get her music published. At the same time, however, he hindered her. For example, she could only compose and practice during hours when it would not disturb her husband. It became increasingly difficult to balance caring for her children and maintaining a career to guarantee the necessary income for a growing family.
After Robert Schumann’s death, Clara continued to tour, maintaining her status as one of the greatest pianists of her time. But her compositional output declined considerably. Instead, she concentrated on the publication of her late husband’s works. However, at a time when women supposedly could not compose, Clara Schumann succeeded in publishing a good deal under her own name: two of her most famous works, the Piano Concerto in A Minor Op. 7 and the Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17, were published during her lifetime. She was undoubtedly aided by her renown as a concert pianist.
Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann lived very different lives, but shared a common passion for performing and composing music, as well as a common struggle for compositional renown. Their relationships with their more famous male relatives were generally fruitful, stimulating and creative; at a time when opportunities for women to perform and publish their own work were severely limited, both achieved renown in their own right. Yet at times, both women felt unjustifiably overshadowed. One wonders what impact they would have had on music history if they were alive today.
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