Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Carmel Quartet presents "Family Portraits" - Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) - at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Carmel Quartet - violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg, 'cellist Tami Waterman - opened its 2010-2011 and fourth season of “Strings and More” commented concerts with “Family Portraits”, a discussion of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his sister Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) (1805-1847). Presented three times in Hebrew, this writer attended the English language lecture-concert on November 3rd 2010 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Violist Yoel Greenberg set the scene with information about the Mendelssohn family – a family with abundant talent that had overcome racial boundaries, taking a leading part in German culture. To this end, Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn, believing that Jews should assimilate, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, together with their four children. The Mendelssohn family provided the ideal cultural environment for their children – with private tutors, education in the arts, languages and the sciences and trips to European capitals. Both Felix and Fanny were both highly educated by the age of 11. Felix, at age nine, gave his first public appearance, playing the solo of a Dussek piano concerto. Fanny, at age 13, learned to play the whole of J.S.Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in honor of her father’s birthday. On the subject of a musical career, however, their father wrote to Fanny that for her it “can and must only be an ornament”.

Felix Mendelssohn was a phenomenon – a prolific composer, an outstanding pianist and improviser, he painted beautifully (painting scenes from his tours around Europe), showed literary talent, spoke a number of languages, translating and editing, played chess, etc. and he was endowed with a sense of humor. Greenberg stressed the fact that Felix was encouraged to make public appearances, was taken around Europe to meet important cultural figures such as Goethe, for whom he performed, whereas Fanny, as the daughter of well-to-do people, led a more private musical life. Felix, however, was proud of Fanny’s musical accomplishments, even publishing some of her works under his name, later revealing them to be hers. Fanny herself composed prolifically – some 400 works - but was always very involved in Felix’s oeuvre, revising and correcting many of his works. Fanny, however, did have exposure of her works and performance in the private ladies’ salon, the salon being quite sizable, with guests numbering up to 250.


When she was 17, Fanny met Wilhelm Hensel, a young artist of great promise. Hensel, later to become Fanny’s husband, made a sketch of the members of their circle in the form of a wheel. The spokes show members of the society; Hensel sketched himself as flying in at the top, making his way into the circle. Felix is seen as the centre of the wheel. Felix, was, indeed, the focus of the family, his brilliance and fame being proof of Germany’s acceptance of the family into the country’s cultural scene. One of the questions in Yoel Greenberg’s discussion was whether Felix’s success was a hindrance to Fanny’s musical achievement. It seems, however, that the problems of gender and social status were what kept her musical activity more secluded than Felix’s and prevented her from enjoying the right to publish her works. Felix and Fanny were very close spirits, Fanny being Felix’s muse and confidante, the ultimate authority when it came to his compositions. She was involved in the creative process of every one of his works, correcting them and offering him advice.

In the afternoon of May 14th 1847, Fanny was rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata “The First Walpurgis Night” with her small choir when she collapsed, dying a few hours later. Her last musical activity was, symbolically, dedicated to her connection with Felix. Felix was plunged into despair at Fanny’s death. He was unable to compose for months following the tragedy; he was only able to draw. He himself was to die in a similar manner in November of the same year.

The Carmel Quartet performed two quartets, the first being Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s String Quartet in E flat major (1834). Dedicated to Beethoven, it begins unconventionally with a slow movement - a singing, personal piece - whereby Hensel, not obliged to cater to the conventions of an opening movement in sonata form, presents a fantasia whose two themes freely mix in other melodic ideas. The second movement – Allegretto – bears the Mendelssohn stamp of warmth, lightness, fantasy and well-being, its fugue constituting the middle section reminding us of her and Felix’s admiration of Bach. The third movement is a lyrical songful Romance, a piece reflecting the composer’s use of drama, lyricism and contrast. The joyful, lilting Allegro molto vivace demonstrates Hensel’s fine sense of instrumentation and layering.

Felix Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet in F minor opus 80 in July of 1847 as a Requiem to his sister Fanny. His last major work, the work is that of an anguished, changed person, a man beset with pain and grief. Greenberg referred to motifs in the first movement – Allegro vivace assai – as those of tremors and shrieks. The first theme evokes a sense of trembling, contrasted by a somber second theme, with the bleak atmosphere returning after a temporary respite. The second movement is a kind of “dance of death”, its ghostly trio peppered with jarring accents. Some of the work’s heaviness lifts in the third movement – a long, elegiac Adagio – where despair mingles with moments of happiness expressed in a lyrical, songlike melody. In the fourth movement, the composer returns to his rage and grief. This final movement is a virtuosic piece, making great demands on all players, especially on the first violin.

Musicologist Yoel Greenberg’s presentation is clear, eloquent, amusing and always interesting. His talks place emphasis on social, historical and biographical detail, leaving detailed musical analysis to other forums. Musical motifs, however, are demonstrated before the quartet performs a complete work, guiding the listener as to key melodies and ideas. Other members of the quartet read, quote and present small vignettes. Established in 1999, the illustrious Carmel Quartet reads deeply into the musical text of each work, offering its audience performance of the highest quality. “Family Portraits” was a thought-provoking lecture-concert. Greenberg’s talks are always well researched. The audience was both moved and reminded of the importance of exposing Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn’s music. The event was well attended, with English-speaking Jerusalem music lovers there to enjoy and appreciate an interesting and meaningful evening at the JMC.

2 comments:

Bill Burdick said...

It was a fantastic concert and your article is spot-on. I really liked how they highlighted the things to come so that we recognized them when they happened -- especially those of us (like me) who are not as musically educated as many of the other listeners.


Bill Burdick

Heather said...

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

Family Portraits