Meet The Musical Mendelssohns: Felix And Fanny

Jan 29, 2013
Originally published on January 28, 2013 6:14 pm

Musical talent tends to run in families. Think of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Colin and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, or The Jackson 5.

But long before those musical siblings, there were the Mendelssohns — Felix and Fanny, the subjects of a new album by the versatile Ebène Quartet from Paris.

The Mendelssohns grew up making music together in Berlin at the beginning of the 19th century. Felix, younger by four years, became one of history's most brilliant composers. Fanny, a strong-willed pianist but worried about her worth as a composer, has been neglected. Still, as Felix's career soared and Fanny struggled to publish her pieces, the two remained close.

"The connection between Fanny and Felix was more than brother and sister," Ebène cellist Raphaël Merlin says. "It was almost soul mates."

Early on, Fanny helped Felix with structuring some of his pieces. Later, Felix was supportive of his sister but, like their father, discouraged her from actually publishing her music.

Fanny wrote a String Quartet in E-flat major in 1834, and it's the centerpiece of the Ebène Quartet's new recording. Violist Mathieu Herzog says that while Fanny's work might not quite be up to the standards of her brother's String Quartets Nos. 2 and 6 (also on the album), it's very fine music.

"We thought it would be great to put Fanny in the middle, like a sandwich of Mendelssohn," Herzog says. "It's also our gift to her, if I may say that."

Merlin is more positive about Fanny's string quartet, noting that along with all its imagination, freedom and sensitivity, it's not always easy to play.

"It's maybe even more difficult to bring to the stage, just because of the fourth movement, which is so physical," Merlin says. "There is something fighting in here between contradictory emotions. It's very close to what Schumann could do at this time."

Other than playing and conducting in salon settings, Fanny made just one public appearance, as soloist in her brother's First Piano Concerto at a benefit concert. Very little of her music was published in her lifetime, and much of it today remains privately owned.

Fanny died suddenly of a stroke at age 41, in 1847. Felix was crushed, and Herzog says you can hear the pain he poured into the String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, completed in September of that year.

"Felix Mendelssohn's music is always a joy. He's an optimistic guy," Herzog says. "In this quartet you feel immediately that there's something strange. You will be shocked by music with so much power and drama."

"And violence," Merlin adds.

Felix referred to the quartet as his "Requiem for Fanny." He would die two months later, at 38, after a series of strokes. He was buried next to his sister in Berlin.

"We think he died of sadness," Herzog says.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish with music from the Ebene Quartet...


CORNISH: ...which, as you can hear, doesn't always fit the traditional definition of a string quartet. They tackle chamber music, sure, but they also perform jazz or even surf rock tunes like this one, "Misalu," from the movie "Pulp Fiction."


CORNISH: We sat down with two members of the quartet, violist Mathieu Herzog, and cellist Raphael Merlin. On their latest album, the quartet pays homage to one of the most celebrated classical composers of the 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn.


RAPHAEL MERLIN: He was unbelievably young. He was not more than 17, I think. And it's very touching to feel how convinced he was himself of the deep meaning music could have. It's very surprising what kind of mastership and what kind of large knowledge of music emotion fields Mendelssohn already had.


CORNISH: For Raphael Merlin and the other members of his quartet, Mendelssohn was an obvious choice. What's surprising on this album was their choice to highlight the work of Mendelssohn's older sister and confidante, Fanny Mendelssohn. She was an accomplished composer in her own right.


CORNISH: Why did you want to highlight work by Fanny Mendelssohn?

MATHIEU HERZOG: So it's Mathieu answering. It's a short and long story. Actually, we have a very good friend, which is a lady in Germany, who told us about this piece because she heard it in a concert. And she told us: You have to play it. And we respect this lady so much that we thought we have to play it one day - only for her, maybe - but we have to do it. And actually, we were delighted that it was not a bad piece at all.

To be honest, it's not maybe the same level than Felix, but it's really great music. So we started to work on it, and also, we decided to record the first one - first he wrote - and the last one he wrote, the "Opus 80," dedicated to Fanny's memory.

CORNISH: Ah. So the one he did at 17...


CORNISH: ..."Opus 13," as a young man, but "Opus 80" comes after her death, and he died soon after.

HERZOG: Yeah, absolutely. So we thought it would be great to put Fanny in the middle, like a sandwich of Mendelssohn. And, yeah, it's also our gift to her, if I may say that, if the way I'll say that this girl was a great composer. And everybody knows her because of the sister half, Felix, but she's also a great composer.


CORNISH: And at the time, as they were growing up, Fanny was actually discouraged by her father, of course, of going into music. And he wrote to her once saying that music may become Felix's - his profession, but for you, it can and must only be an ornament. But she went on to compose great many works. Is that true?

MERLIN: So Raphael answering. When I read that kind of stories about their childhood, it's actually traumatic, because what Mathieu just told about the fact that maybe Fanny's quartet is not that perfect than the - Felix's works are, it's a tiny difference. I think in Fanny's music, you can feel even a larger inspiration and imagination. There is a lot of freedom and sensitivity here.


MERLIN: It's so energetic. And on the other side, there is also this very classical, harmonic style. It's kind of unique, in a way, but you can totally feel they compose the same spirit and same material like they have the same blood. It's very, very similar.

CORNISH: Raphael, I get the sense that you're a bigger champion of Fanny here.


MERLIN: Yeah. I think Mathieu doesn't show enough respect to her.


MERLIN: I'm a big fan of this music, anyway. Even if I admit, it's maybe even more difficult to bring into the stage just because of the fourth movement, which is so physical.


MERLIN: There is something fighting in here between contradictory emotions. It's very close to what Schumann could do at this time.

CORNISH: Now, before I let you go, I was hoping that you could walk us through one more song. So you discuss it. There's - "Opus 80" is the one that Felix Mendelssohn wrote after his sister had died. Walk us through what we're hearing.

MERLIN: Felix was, at this time, probably feeling he could not survive - his sister, that some kind of a testament piece. It's very touching. Everybody calls it "Requiem for Fanny."

HERZOG: Yeah, sure.

MERLIN: That's something he very - probably he said.


HERZOG: Felix Mendelssohn music, normally, it's always a joy or something like that. He's an optimistic guy. So in this quartet, you can feel immediately that there is something strange. If you know Felix Mendelssohn, you don't know the story about - it's for death, you will be shocked by the music with so much power and drama and everything. So...

MERLIN: Violence. It's violent.

HERZOG: And violence. Yeah, that's right. Because he was so sad.


MERLIN: The connection between Fanny and Felix was more than brother and sister. It was soul mate, almost soul mates. So, of course, when she died - and Mendelssohn died like three, four, six months after that. And we think that he died because of sadness.


CORNISH: Well, Mathieu Herzog and Raphael Merlin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MERLIN: Thank you.

HERZOG: Thank you.


CORNISH: You can see Raphael and Mathieu and the rest of the quartet perform music by Felix Mendelssohn at


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.