Saturday, June 29, 2013

Faith and Hope in the Last Lieder of Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn

Faith and Hope

in the Last Lieder of

Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn

        The Judeo-Christian origins of the German Romantic movement are the subjects for other blogs, and perhaps books. Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, both devout Christians, and both grandchildren of the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, grew up in the heart of the Judeo-Christian German Romantic Movement, and the poet for two of their last Lieder, Joseph von Eichendorff, was one of the very greatest of the German Romantic poets. Felix and Fanny wrote marvelous Eichendorff settings (Fanny's Lieder for soloist and piano, and Felix's choral Lieder for four part mixed chorus), because they belonged to the same vibrant Judeo-Christian artistic movement as the poet himself. When Felix Mendelssohn and his beloved sister Fanny died, the exuberance of the early Romantic Movement died with them.

        Fanny’s last Lied, which she wrote on the day before she died, looks onward into the Kingdom of Heaven, and Felix’s late Lied, written after Fanny’s death, looks forward to the resurrection.

        Fanny Hensel, the sister of the famous, but nonetheless underrated, composer Felix Mendelssohn, and
the wife of the once famous German painter Wilhelm Hensel, is truly the queen of German Lieder. Her songs are often graceful, subtle, and harmonically complex, and they are always beautifully melodic, and they follow the poem texts very closely. Movements in the melody and accompaniment are placed to express the meaning of the text. Fanny’s songs are gems in the world of German Lieder.

        This is by no means Fanny’s most harmonically complex song, but it is beautiful and filled with the exuberant joy which characterizes so many of her settings of Joseph von Eichendorff’s poetry. Fanny Hensel used the last three verses of Eichendorff’s poem Durch Feld und Buchenallen for her final Lied, Bergeslust.


O Lust, vom Berg zu schauen
weit über Wald und Strom,
hoch über sich den blauen
klaren Himmelsdom!

Vom Berge Vögeln fliegen
und Wolken so geschwind,
Gedanken überfliegen
die Vögel und den Wind.

Die Wolken ziehn hernieder,
das Vöglein senkt sich gleich,
Gedanken gehn und Lieder
fort bis in das Himmelreich,

Gedanken gehn und Lieder
fort bis ins Himmereich,
fort bis ins Himmelreich!

~Joseph von Eichendorff

        The first verse is about the desire to gaze over Creation, in this case forests and streams, from the top of a mountain, which is followed by the desire to look up to the heavens. Fanny’s Lied begins with galloping notes in the piano, which evoke an eager scrambling up the side of the mountain, and the entire texture of the melody in the vocal part has an upward motion, which brings to mind images of the Alps in southern Germany and Switzerland, and the entire song is filled with exuberance, joy, and energy.

        In the second verse, the birds, the clouds, and the wind fly swiftly upward from the mountains, but, says the poet, thoughts “over-fly,” or fly further, than the birds and the wind. The third and fourth lines are repeated, with a high note on überfliegen which signifies the flight of thoughts. Thoughts can rise even above the majestic glory of Creation, but where to they rise to?
        In the third verse, the clouds sink down, and the birds also fly downwards, both in quick melodic phrases, but thoughts and songs rise onward into the Kingdom of Heaven. Fanny repeats the word Gedanken, placing it on a held note, and then places Himmelreich (Kingdom of Heaven) on a soaring high A, the highest note in the entire Lied, and then concludes the piece energetically, exuberantly, hopefully, confidently, and very joyfully by repeating fort bis ins Himmelreich!

        This Lied is very much the work of a woman who was looking forward to many more years of life in this world, but who also was in a state of soul well disposed to meet her own Creator.

        When Fanny wrote this piece, she was looking forward to traveling with her husband and son Sebastion, and with her sister Rebecka Dirichlet. The next day, while surrounded by her family and friends, and while happily rehearsing for one of the weekly concerts which she held in her home, she was suddenly stricken with nervous failure, and very shortly afterwards she died, at only the age of forty-one. At the time of her death the original score of Bergeslust, which she had penned just the day before, was still lying on her piano’s music stand, and the words Gedanken gehn und Lieder bis in das Himmelreich are chiseled upon her grave.

Listen to "Bergeslust" by Fanny Hensel

        Her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, who was one of the best known artists in Germany in the early half of th Century, was hardly able to paint or draw after her death. Her brother, Felix, who was as close to her as one twin to another twin, although she was four years his senior, was stricken by the same nervous malady when he received the news of her death at his home in Leipzig, but he recovered temporarily, and spent the next six months in the care of his loving wife Cecielle, who had herself been very close to Fanny.

        Felix was hardly able to compose after his sister’s death, but, although his physical health was destroyed, his faith in God never waivered. Nachtlied, also an Eichendorff setting, is one of the few pieces of music that he was able to compose in the few months between Fanny’s death and his own.


Vergangen ist der lichte Tag,
Von ferne kommt der Glocken Schlag;
So reist die Zeit die ganze Nacht,
Nimmt manchen mit, der’s nicht gedacht.

Wo ist nun hin die bunte Lust,
Des Freundes Trost und treue Brust,
Der Liebsten süßer Augenschein?
Will keiner mit mir munter sein?

Frisch auf denn, liebe Nachtigal,
Du Wasserfall mit hellem Schall!
Gott loben wollen wir vereint,
Bis dass der lichte Morgen scheint!
Gott loben wollen wir vereint,
Bis das der lichte Morgen schein!

~Joseph von Eichendorff

      Felix’s Lied starts out with a simple melody. The first phrase sounds like a hymn, and the second phrase like the pealing of bells, which is what Glocken Schlag means. Then the melody reaches upawrd in the third phrase, and then in the fourth falls back down in odd intervals on nimmt manchen mit, der’s nicht gedacht.

        The next verse is repeated, with increased intensity on [Wo ist…] der Liebsten süßer Augenschein? And then the melody drops almost to a whisper, asking “will no one be merry with me?”

        The implied answer is that the loved one is not and cannot be present, and so the singer calls upon the nightingale and the waterfall to praise God with him until the morning light shines forth. Felix placed Gott on the highest note in the entire Lied for emphasis, just as Fanny had done with Himmelreich in her Lied.

        “God praising will we be united” proclaims the singer with strength and conviction, and “God praising will we be united” repeats the singer softly with faith and hope. Here, in one of his very last works, and in spite of his terrible grief, Felix expressed his great faith in God, and his confidence that he and Fanny and all of their loved ones will be united in praising God when that final morning light breaks forth.

Listen to "Nachtlied" by Felix Mendelssohn