Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Development of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel's Lieder

The nineteenth century was an uncertain time for women, particularly regarding their ability to pursue independent, professional careers. Women composers and performers during this time faced the same challenges that other potential women professionals faced. This becomes clear after reading some of the published literature from this time. The following is from Jean Jacques Rousseau's, Émile, published in 1762:

The man should be strong and active; the woman should be weak and passive[...] Woman is specially made for man's delight. If man in his turn ought to be pleasing in her eyes, the necessity is less urgent[...] He pleases because he is strong[...] She ought to make herself pleasing in his eyes and not provoke him to anger[...]

Little girls always dislike learning to read and write, but they are always ready to learn to sew[...]

It appears as if the only women composers and performers that achieved even mediocre popularity were those that had associations with male professionals in the same field. Take for example Alma Mahler, wife of composer Gustav Mahler, and Marie Moke Pleyel, briefly engaged to Hector Berlioz and later the wife of the Paris piano manufacturer, Camille Pleyel. Although quite difficult for a woman to enter the professional musical world, due in part to the ideologies of men such as Rousseau, many did find success as amateurs.

It turns out that being relegated to performing household work, as most women were expected to do, provided ample free time to hone their musical skills. As a result, during the nineteenth-century, women's homes were frequently becoming the venue for amateur evening concerts. The Mendelssohn household was such a place. Located on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin, the Mendelssohn house was a sprawling mansion that nurtured and cultivated the musical intellects of both of the Mendelssohn children. Fanny Mendelssohn, along with her brother Felix, were certainly encouraged to pursue music. Hensel had a more difficult time with this however. Her father, Abraham Mendelssohn, on the surface appeared to be supportive. A letter to Fanny from her father on her twenty-third birthday states, “you must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife.” This reveals that Felix's and Fanny's level of support is unequal Her father and brother were supportive only to a certain level. Aside from her house concerts she was never encouraged to publish her own music early in her career. Her mother, Lea Mendelssohn seemed to be the only one in the family that advocated her pursuing a professional music career.

Given all the constraints that were imposed upon her, Hensel's lieder has largely been overlooked by modern music analysts. Compounding the problem, her brother Felix received the majority of the accolades which further diminished her importance to the development of the German lied, even passing off some of her compositions as his own. Whether or not this was done intentionally is unknown.

In this paper I will be using Goethe's poems “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” (Hensel's “Harfner's Lied”, composed in 1825) and “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” composed in 1843 as jumping-off points to illustrate the development of Hensel's lied style from the so-called Second Berlin School of German Lieder to her more “mature” output, the aptly dubbed Third Berlin School of German Lieder. Also of importance is to understand that Fanny played an integral role in the creation of this new style. As stated, this topic has been generally ignored by analysts and this paper will bring to bear some of the reasons why this shift in style occurred in the first place. Furthermore, analyzing the development of her style will cast a spotlight on her work and be a small step toward highlighting her often underrated music.

Aside from Felix, Hensel's direction in music was primarily guided by the advice and wishes of her father, her composition/theory teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, and the giant of Weimar Classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hensel's output of lieder can generally be broken up into two styles. The Second Berlin School of German Lieder typifies Hensel's early lied style from around 1820-1835. This is the style in which Zelter composed and taught his own students. Featuring strophic form and clear presentation of the text, this style typifies the Northern German lieder represented by Zelter and Hegel. Fanny began musical instruction with Zelter when she was very young so his ideologies were driven into her from the beginning of her musical life.

It should come as no surprise that Goethe was an advocate of the Second Berlin School. It was extremely important to him that the text be well represented (particularly when it is his poem that is being set.) The piano accompaniment was always subordinate to the text. The accompaniment is simple and not physically or technically demanding on the player. Often in the Second School, the piano accompaniment will double the vocal line, further emphasizing and focusing the listeners attention on the meaning of the text (Hensel's setting of “Erster Verlust” composed in 1820, is an excellent example of vocal doubling.) It should also come as no surprise that Hensel was certainly trying to please Goethe with her compositions. In a letter from Fanny to Felix on 28 October 1821 – when he was planning a visit to Goethe's home and Fanny was only 15 years old – Felix received a letter from her which makes it clear that Fanny admired Goethe beyond measure. She states, “when you go to Goethe's, I advise you to keep your eyes open and prick up your ears, and if you can't relate every detail to me afterwards, I will consider us ex-friends.” It is somewhat ironic that Fanny's creativity was likely stifled by her deep admiration for Goethe. Goethe wanted the music to be subordinate to the text and that was how Fanny was going to write it.

As stated above, the Second Berlin School features strophic text setting and subordinate piano accompaniment. More specifically, proponents of the Second Berlin School believe that strophic poetry should be accompanied by strophic music and that portions of text should rarely, if ever, be repeated as not to detract from the poet's work. It is generally accepted that Hensel's compositional practices of the Third Berlin School differ from those of the Second in the following ways: 1) Hensel modulates more frequently, earlier in the song and often to more distantly related keys, 2) a point of modulation occurs, most often, at an important word or phrase of the text and 3) climactic moments typically feature an altered chord (which may or may not belong to the tonic key) and are associated with an important word in the text that is being set.

Several factors were considered in determining which songs to analyze. “Harfner's Lied” and “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” were chosen because they exemplify Hensel's shift in style beginning around 1835. They were also chosen because they help to illustrate the idea that, although Hensel's style certainly changed during this time, her transition was not black and white. There are frequent gray areas present throughout her career. For example, “Harfner's Lied” is through-composed. Based on what is known about the Second Berlin School, one might expect a strophic setting. Similar gray areas are present in, “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben,” composed eight years later and deep into her years in the Third Berlin School. This piece is strophic, when the opposite might be expected. Interestingly, her early and late lieder both employ extensive text painting. For this reason I felt it important to include several examples in my analyses. It is no surprise that text painting techniques were used throughout her career. That being said, the differences among her early and later years are certainly evident in the music, which will be addressed next.

The slow harmonic rhythm and simple accompaniment of “Harfner's Lied” allows for a straightforward declamation of the text (this song even employs mixed meter suggesting that the text, not the music, is the priority). The accompaniment does not get in the way or hinder the vocal line in any way. Furthermore, the recitative vocal style is in line with the conventions of the Second Berlin School. The piano accompaniment could be considered boring, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the accompaniment is intentionally sparse. Why? It allows for, and does not detract from, extensive text painting in the vocal line. The first line of text gives us a glimpse of the text painting to come in this piece. The text, “who gives himself over to solitude” occurs on disjunct pitches. This first line contains no stepwise motion in the vocal part. This creates the feeling that even the notes themselves are in solitude. With the exception of beats 1 and 2 of m. 2, all of these pitches are isolated from one another, lending support to the idea of aloneness as a recurring theme in this song. As is characteristic of the Second Berlin School, sparse accompaniment opens the door for more effective emphasis of the text.

As previously stated, the Second Berlin School generally advised against text repetition. The agony laden text of “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” however calls out for repetition of certain lines. Measures 10 – 13 signal a point in the piece where Hensel could not resist a text repetition. “Yes, leave me to my torment” is repeated and re-harmonized (this is something that appears quite frequently in Felix Mendelssohn's lieder as well.) Both repetitions feature stepwise descents that end with a downward leap to the word “Qual” (torment). Descending lines representing grief are not a new idea but Hensel affixes her own personal signature to it. The first appearance of the word torment occurs on the dominant in the key of G-minor. This dominant has been preceded by a French augmented sixth chord in m. 10 which creates tension leading to the word torment at the downbeat of m. 11. Instead of landing on the dominant, the second iteration of the descending vocal line ends on a fully diminished seventh chord at m 13. In doing so, Hensel raises the level of tension. Although the Second Berlin School generally advised against text repetition, this example seems appropriate. Instead of diminishing the meaning of the poetry, Hensel is accentuating it.

Another way in which Hensel emphasizes the meaning of the text occurs in m. 20. The text, “[...]lover creeps up and listens softly” is paralleled melodically. Following a rapid descending arpeggiation of a G-minor triad, the vocal line reverses and arpeggiates the same triad in ascending order. This occurs precisely at the same time the words “creeps up” are sung. This is not the last time in this song where text painting techniques are used with the words “creeps up.” Following a dominant prolongation at m. 22, the narrator's “pain creep[s] up on his solitude.” The text painting here is initiated by the fully diminished seventh chord at the downbeat of m. 23. This chord is held while the vocal line descends rapidly to the word “pain.” Following the sustained chord, these same pitches are re-articulated at the end of the measure. This signifies the narrator's pain creeping up on his solitude. The meaning of the text is emphasized because this re-articulation of the fully diminished seventh chord “creeps up,” or leads into, the tonic triad at the downbeat of m. 24. The same thing occurs at the end of this measure (although the chord has been inverted). In both instances the piano accompaniment is being used to accentuate the meaning of the text. Only after the narrator is dead will his torment and loneliness cease. Evident by the line, “when I am alone in my grave,” this creeping motive ends. This final line of text is perhaps the most striking example of text painting in the song.

Looking at the contour of the melody at mm. 25 – 27 one gets an idea of the striking parallels between text and music. Goethe has saved the most dramatic line of text for the end of the poem and Hensel treats her vocal line as a literal descent into the grave. The piano is sustaining a dominant seventh chord for two measures (25 – 26) which allows the listeners attention to be drawn to the descending vocal line. As the text indicates, the vocal line is literally alone at this point because the accompaniment has stalled. A nearly stepwise descent from E – F# in m. 25 to the downbeat of m. 26 represents this descent into the grave. Hensel could have made the F# the arrival point but instead it leaps to a C in m. 26 and then is finally resolved at m. 27. She no doubt felt it necessary to reiterate the vocal descent over the sustained accompaniment. This leads directly into a restatement of the disjunct setting of “solitude” previously mentioned in mm. 1 – 3. In this way, the narrator is left in the same state in which he began, alone.

The text painting in “Harfner's Lied” can be summarized in the following way: 1) solitude is represented by disjunct pitches in the vocal line (mm. 1 – 3, 16 – 17 and 28 – 29), 2) Torment and pain creep up on the narrator through the use of ascending and descending vocal lines (mm. 12 – 13, 20 and 23 – 24) and the re-articulation of chords (mm. 23 – 24), 3) The narrator being lowered into the grave is represented by a descending vocal line occurring over a sustained dominant seventh chord (mm. 25 – 27). The techniques of the Second Berlin School run through this piece. This is most obvious when considering the declamatory nature of the vocal, including mixed meter, and the relatively sparse piano accompaniment. Is has been illustrated that text painting lends support to the meaning of the text yet this is not unique to Hensel's early lieder. As we will see, “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” also features pervasive text painting, but it is clear that by 1835 Hensel's style has matured. Her use of chromaticism, points of climax, modulatory schemes and the piano accompaniment after 1835 are more sophisticated and generally more complex than that of her early lieder.

The most noticeable feature of Hensel's “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” is the heavy use of chromaticism. The predominant tonal area in this song is D major, but most of the time this key is obscured by chromatic harmony. Immediately, in m. 2, Hensel uses a secondary dominant (bII/V) which resolves to a chromatic half diminished ii chord in the second half of the measure. In this case the neapolitan is being used to emphasize the text “sank from high above.” Schubert frequently uses the neapolitan chord to portray a sense of sinking, or settling down, and Hensel certainly would have been aware of this fact at this point in her career.

Frequently, chromaticism in the vocal line in initiated by the harmony of the accompaniment. An excellent example of this is in mm. 9 – 11. A very unstable area of this song, Hensel uses the harmony and the vocal line to contribute to its ambiguity. Any sense of key is highly obscured and therefore eludes to the meaning of the text. The lines, “everything shakes with uncertainty” and “the play of moving shadows” were intentionally set in a vague and unclear way. It appears, beginning in m. 8, that the song has modulated to A major. This interpretation reveals the chord progression V4/2 – I – V/bII – N6 – ii half diminished 6/5, followed by what appears to be another modulation to F minor at the downbeat of m. 11 (other interpretations are of course possible). Therefore, vagaries in the text equal vagaries in the music. The concept of key center ambiguity is a hallmark of Hensel's later lied style. Frequent modulations, particularly those to a distantly related key, emphasize the general mood of Goethe's poem; mystery brought about by the arrival of twilight.

Interpreting m. 8 as a modulation to A major followed by a modulation to F minor at m. 11 illustrates a common theme in Hensel's later lied style. The theme of multiple modulations, and more specifically modulation to distantly related keys. Measure 8 is simply a modulation to the dominant, but m. 11, to the chromatic mediant. This emphasis on shifting tonal centers flies in the face of the Second Berlin School. Zelter and Goethe would most likely view the heavy chromaticism as an obstacle in the way of the text, focusing the listeners attention somewhere else. However, it is apparent that the opposite could also be true. It could just as easily be said that chromaticism in the vocal line draws attention to that line and therefore is not a hindrance to the declamation of the text. It is clear in this song that simple declamation of text has been replaced, but what is sacrificed in terms of textual clarity is made up for in the contrasting colors created by chromaticism.

Another quite striking element in “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” is the heightened role of the piano accompaniment. Where “Harfner's Lied” primarily utilizes simple diatonic chord progressions with a slow harmonic rhythm, “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” is composed with a thicker texture, quicker harmonic rhythm and an entire palette of chromatic colors. The most notable chromaticism is the secondary leading tone chords found in. mm. 12 and 15, something that is not found in “Harfner's Lied” or the majority of her lieder before 1820. “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” marks an important place in Hensel's compositional development. Straying further and further away from the conventions of the Second Berlin School, in this piece Hensel has reached the pinnacle of her mature lied style and has finally found her own unique voice.

Another characteristic that is common in Hensel's lieder post 1835 is her use of a high note in the vocal line to signify an important word or point of modulation. The downbeat of measure 6 in “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” is such a note. The high F that occurs on the word “high” coincides with an evaded cadence initiated by a cadential 6/4 in m. 5. Instead of resolving as expected to a V5/3 – I, the V6/4 resolves to a secondary dominant (V7/vi.) This is important because the F is the highest note in the song and the secondary dominant leads into the modulatory passage at mm. 8 – 11. Using the high F in this way is characteristic of Hensel's style during this time and is seen in her early lieder far less often.

The piano accompaniment from mm. 1 – 11 remains relatively consistent, primarily employing an eighth-note block chord texture. The texture is interrupted in m. 9 at the arrival of the afore mentioned area of “uncertainty.” Descending half-notes at the octave lead into disjunct motion in the left hand. The accompaniment at this point in the song is quite erratic, which makes the uncertainty of the previous three measures that much more important. What is the meaning of this sudden shift in texture? It is my assertion that the texture is another text painting device. The accompaniment in m. 12 is in direct parallel to the text. Following the accompanimental descent at mm. 9 – 11, the text is “a mist creeps slowly upward.” Upward is the important word here. Upon its arrival the left hand leaps dramatically upward spanning two octaves. This simple device ensures that the listeners attention will be drawn to the text. Block chord leaps continue at m. 13 and finally settle on the dominant at m. 16. Therefore, the text painting in “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben” can be summarized as follows: 1) using the neapolitan chord as a device to convey a feeling of sinking, 2) short modulatory passages featuring heavy chromaticism are used to convey uncertainty in the text, 3) using the highest note in the vocal line as a point of modulation, and 4) using changes in accompanimental texture to highlight some aspect of the text.

Text painting occurs in the majority of Hensel's lieder. What is important to understand is that the text painting is achieved in different ways depending on the time period in which the piece was written. The text setting of her early works typically feature a strophic form with simple and clear declamation of the text. Therefore, the text painting devices are typically less complicated and require less analysis of the harmony. In order to understand the text painting in her later work, it is necessary to examine her harmonies and chromatic passages more closely.

It is my hope that this paper has answered some questions regarding the differences between Hensel's early and late lieder, particularly how her style changed after the deaths of her father, Zelter and Goethe. It is also important to begin studying Hensel's lieder more closely. The ideologies of the nineteenth century have pushed Hensel's lieder into obscurity even though she is equally important to the development of the German lied as her brother Felix, and even Schubert. Not enough credit has been given in terms of her contributions to the genre of art song and hopefully this paper will inspire others to better understand and appreciate her work. In doing so, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel may be considered equally revolutionary to the genre of art song, as her mentor Goethe was to poetry.


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