Fanny Mendelssohn
1842 portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Like her famous brother Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was musically brilliant. At 13, she wrote a song for her father’s birthday, and she knew by heart all 24 preludes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier when she was 14. But around that time, her father, a wealthy banker, made it clear that music was not in his daughter’s future, writing her a letter that said she would be expected to support her younger brother’s career and that for her music would be only an “ornament.”

Fanny was a fascinating person — complex, passionate, mannered, spontaneous, strong, affectionate, and intolerant, hating formality and hating having to wear hats because their veils got caught in her glasses, says filmmaker and writer Sheila Hayman, who also happens to be the composer and pianist’s great-great-great-granddaughter. Hayman, who made the 2009 documentary Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and Me, wasn’t sure how to make her new documentary, Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Film poster

“It’s an extraordinary story, but that still leaves the problem of how you make a film about an old dead German woman who died before film or recorded sound or photography. What do you point the camera at apart from anything else?” Hayman said on a video call from her home in London. “I knew I would need, as I had in the other [documentary], a contemporary thread to hang it onto. And then, as I started digging, I discovered that there were these women, still alive, who had been in the sort of second wave of feminism, who had been the first people to try to storm the archives and get at her story, and they were, as you can imagine, spirited and feisty.”

Talking to these women, including musicologist Marcia J. Citron, who translated Fanny’s letters to her brother, Hayman started to excavate the story of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who had, the director said, an “absolute burning talent.”

In the film, Hayman talks about how Fanny’s words to her brother are so personal that reading them feels like eavesdropping. Asked on the video call about her experience with the letters, Hayman said her relative both inspired and frustrated her.

“She’s somebody you want to shake, except you can’t because she died 200 years ago. This is very familiar to me — this kind of mixture of very deep inner conviction that maybe you do have something to say and maybe it is worth saying and then constantly being told by inner voices, and in her case by the outside world, that [you’re] a woman and therefore it’s completely impossible that [you] could be talented,” Hayman said. “Mostly she was really brave and resilient — humorous and cheerful and positive — but occasionally she lapsed into these tragic moments, like, ‘I never hear from Felix, and he never sends me his music anymore.’”

Besides the letters, Hayman found something else while making the film — a lost sonata, composed by Fanny and misattributed to Felix. “In the course of excavating her story, I discovered the story of the Easter Sonata, this lost, found, lost-again, found-again mystery,” Hayman said, “and the very dogged and determined woman who had decided to trace it to its source and prove it was by Fanny. That gave us the spotlight on which we could hang the rest of the story.”

That dogged and determined woman was Angela R. Mace. As a graduate student in musicology at Duke University, she worked under R. Larry Todd (author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music and Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn; he also appears in the film) and grew interested in Fanny’s music and life. Mace went to the Berlin State Library and found that pages 89–110 were missing from a collection that was believed to have once held the manuscript for the Easter Sonata. She eventually tracked down the original score to a private collector’s home in Paris (in the film, the collector tells Mace that the piece is “masculine” and “violent” and clearly written by Felix).

Women’s talent being suppressed is a familiar story, Hayman said, and she appreciated Mace’s “bone-deep determination to give Fanny her due.” Hayman also desired to find “Fanny the musical genius.”

She explained on the video call: “It’s really difficult to feel you have any value when nobody is telling you that except for your husband, who had a tin ear for music. She was caught in this sad and familiar bind, but what I loved about her is she didn’t ever give up. At moments when the film was really difficult to make and I’d only had eight hours sleep in three nights and I had no idea what I was doing and whether it would be any good and I was pretty sure it would be awful — the thought of Fanny not giving up and her taking comfort in the people around her was really inspiring.”

Isata Kanneh-Mason
Isata Kanneh-Mason | Credit: David Venni

Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason appears in the film, rehearsing and then performing the Easter Sonata for a 2022 recital at the University of Birmingham’s Elgar Concert Hall.

On the video call, Hayman talked about how brilliant Kanneh-Mason is, the parallels between her and Fanny, and how moving it was to hear the pianist play the Easter Sonata. Hayman said Kanneh-Mason was the perfect person to perform the piece and not just because of her immense talent.

“Classical music is unbelievably white still,” Hayman said. “Isata had virtually no role models as a Black classical pianist, so she had to go out and be the first. It seemed appropriate that she should play this piece of music that was written by somebody who also had no role models and was a pioneer.”

With the film, Hayman said, she hopes Fanny will be an inspiration for others. “Of all the things I’m pleased about with this film, [I’m happiest] that it’s out there now. It’s being seen all around the world, her story is now being revived, and people are playing her music. I sort of feel nobody’s going to be able to put her back in a box again, and that’s really what I wanted to do. I wanted to honor her and bring her out into the world again so she would be there forever.”