Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn-Hensel, was born in Hamburg on November 14th, 1805. The eldest sister of the would-be famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny and Felix were prominent in music from an early age. While the practice of women in education was not supported publicly, Fanny’s father was tolerant of her excursions in music. Felix, on the other hand, supported her and eventually arranged to have some of her music published under his own name. In 1829 Fanny married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was very supportive of her musical endeavors. Her public debut was in 1838, playing her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Fanny Hensel died on May 14th, 1847 from complications due to a stroke suffered while rehearsing one of her brother’s compositions.
The work entitled Bitte (op. 7.5) by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was composed in 1846. Originally a poem composed by Nikolaus Lenau, Hensel arranged the poem for a vocalist with piano accompaniment. The following is the chord progression she used:
m1: iii6 vii*(half)
m2: I I6/4 vii*(half)7 I
m3: ii*4/2 vi6 vii*7/vi vi
m4: ii Vadd6 ii ii*7
m5: V v
m6: bIII7 V7
m7: I bVI
m13: bVI V4/3III III
m14: i6 VII III
m15: i6 v4/2 viio*4/3
The structure of this piece is surprisingly complex. Contrary to previous pieces I’ve had the opportunity to deconstruct this work is a harmonically dense and structurally varied. The overall form of the piece is relatively easy with there being four distinct sections that are each about four measures long each (the only exception being the “outro” the piano has with the 2nd ending, extending the phrase length to six measures). The entire piece seems somewhat tonally ambiguous because of the continuing shifts from major to minor, the presence of secondary dominant areas and non-chord tones (measures 3 and 4 give good examples of all these).
The text of the first phrase reads, Linger on me, dark eyes, exert your entire power. Lingering is the description of everything but what Hensel does. The vocalist sings flowingly but the movement is a constant quarter eighth quarter eighth in each measure, almost like eye movement; look one place, stay for a second, quickly move again and again, always twitching and readjusting. The second phrase incorporates a minor v and bIII, both completely out of the norm from a major key. The text here reads somber, mild, dream-like, unfathomably sweet night. I question if Hensel was trying for sarcasm in her interpretation because the harmonic progression is unorthodox and is mild but eerie as well – not something you’d want a lover to express during the “sweet night.”
With your magic darkness take from me this world… now all this minor is starting to make sense. She craves, yearns, for someone to tonicize her V6/5 of IV in measure 9…but wait! Instead, it’s a minor iv that follows in measure 10. Deceiving tricksters, we be, Ms. Hensel. However, it works and continues to create an increasingly awkward and creepy aura. The kind of creepy one gets from a clown entrusted with an axe. But back to Hensel, for she in her last phrase takes the cake with the line so that above my life you alone will float for ever and ever. And ever and ever and ever… how long can one play a I chord? Well, as long as you’re doing suspension, release, suspension, release, suspension…forever. Well, at least four measures (m.16-19). Shockingly, instead of floating upward, as one might expect, Hensel has the vocal line moving downward…down into the ground. Foreshadowing, anyone? And so with this Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel has succeeded at creating one of the weirdest descriptions of a love/death relationship that will cause me to lose sleep.