Mendelssohn-Hensel: Overture in C Major
It is with some embarrassment that I admit spending far too long under the delusion Fanny Mendelssohn never composed an orchestral work. While superficially familiar with her piano works and lieder (admittedly the main body of her output), it wasn’t until doing the due diligence of researching composers for this project that I came across her Overture in C. It is with regret, then, that I realize what I have missed in the meantime. Thankfully, it seems a number of conductors have discovered this as well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see this work included on the 2018-19 season of the “Big Five” orchestra across town from me.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847)
It is old hat to discuss the close, intense relationship Fanny and her younger brother Felix Mendelssohn had. Suffice it to say that whatever credit we must give her more famous kin for encouraging her music-making, Felix’s discouragement of Fanny’s publication and any true career as a composer did great harm to contemporary and current audiences’ abilities to hear and receive her work. As the Grove entry on her reports, she “depended on Felix’s good opinion of her musical talents…and said that she could ‘cease being a musician tomorrow if you [Felix] thought I wasn’t good at that any longer.” Add to this her tragically short life—dying of a stroke at the age of 42—it is both little wonder and great shame that only one purely orchestral work is to be found in her catalogue. Thankfully, there are numerous piano and vocal works still extant, and several absolutely fantastic oratorios (which we may return to once I get access to scores).
Despite this just said, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel proved influential within her own sphere. Like many upper-class women with artistic temperaments of the 19th century, she found the best outlet for her work within the environment of the Salon. Indeed, according to the grove, this was the environment “for which she created most of her compositions and where she performed on the piano and conducted.” The author of the grove posits even her cantatas and the overture were “perhaps to test her role as saloniste.” During this time, the Grove also notes, she paid particular attention to the then neglected J.S. Bach, and thus, like her younger brother, played an important role herself in the reception history of a composer we now consider canonic bedrock. Her role in the development of her brother’s music has been discussed at length elsewhere (see the Grove for a just a little of it).
Overture in C Major
The Overture in C Major is not the only work Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel wrote for orchestra (as mentioned, there are several oratorios and a concert aria), but it is the only for orchestra alone. The preface to the new (and only) published edition of the score notes that the composition date is not possible to decipher from the manuscript (used as the performing materials for the premiere—its only performance). However, scholarly research dates the composition as likely from 1830-32, which would make its composer 25-27 years old (for reference, 1830 was the same year her brother composed his Reformation symphony, his second completed symphony but published and known as his Fifth). As mentioned above, Fanny herself was the conductor.
Like many of her works, the Overture remained unpublished during Fanny’s lifetime and over a hundred years hence. Thankfully, Furore-Edition released an edited, typeset score in 1994, which has provided not just an opportunity for scholarly understanding, but the more important capability for new performances. Like the critical publication of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, this new edition removes the work from the public domain. I would encourage those interested, however, to request a copy at their nearest library and investigate the work themselves.
The Overture, as its name would suggest, is structured in the way any other overture from the first half of the 19th-century might be (Felix Mendelssohn’s overtures included). Being absolute music, it presents a perfect opportunity for us to become acquainted with the raw priorities of Fanny’s style and technique at that moment in her development.
126.96.36.199 – 188.8.131.52 – timp - strings
The work begins with a slow introduction, marked “Andante,” invoked by a static horn octave G. At the end of the second measure, the strings join with a sweet, fragmentary motive. The overture is not so much starting as awaking. After a tender response from the flutes and clarinets, the strings again exhale their vocal sound in the fourth measure. This gesture repeats again, and at the eighth measure the flutes and clarinets play a melody of their own in response to the string music thus far.
The tenth measure presents us with the next phrase, which spiritually acts as a variant on the first phrase but structurally functions as a second theme to the introduction. The upper strings and woodwind solos exchange a more earnest yet still fragmentary melody, until the strings in measure 16 spin out a string of expressive eighth notes all the way through measure 24, punctuated by distant tonic-dominant drum-figures in the low strings and woodwinds. Fascinatingly, there are numerous parallels between this passage and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, composed originally as his second symphony in 1841 (known today in its 1851 revision). Given the context in which the work was premiered, and the lack of any dissemination of the work, it is not just extremely unlikely but nigh impossible that the later composer could have been influenced. Still, though, the similarities are striking, and suggest at the very least a common source.
Measure 25 brings us a recapitulation of the introduction, the strings again coaxed to sing by the distant horns. Now, however, instead of sighing and gradually awaking, the music builds more assuredly, cresting at the first forte of the piece in measure 32. The flute sings out a solo “con espressione” over a climactic second inversion tonic chord at measure 35, and measure 37 kicks us off into an “Allegro di molto.”
Here we are met with one structural peculiarity about Mendelssohn-Hensel’s composition—the introduction has been in ¾, and the Allegro di Molto continues in ¾--but the main body of the composition to come is in 4/4. It is a subtle effect, but the shift of tempo prior to the shift of meter masks the seam between the two sections. While I normally reserve assessments about recorded performances for later in these posts, I’m not sure this effect has yet been realized appropriately by those available to be heard. In my mind, the Allegro di molto should sound less like an instrumental tempo change and more like an improvisatory cadenza from the upper strings. For this to be achieved, there must be some sort of tempo relationship between these two sections, probably in a ration of 2/1 (the Allegro di molto being approximately twice as fast as the preceding Andante), and certainly not faster than the con fuoco to come (a mistake on a number of the performances). The effect should be that the audience notes the increase in activity, but not a subito tempo change or structural seam, as that is clearly Mendelssohn-Hensel’s intention.
The meter changes to 4/4 after this improvisatory flourish in measure 42, and brass with timpani pound out the dominant in conventionally martial fashion. The effect thus far has been deeply rooted in the opera house. The next 8 measures build upon this martial call to action through homorhythmic quarter note chords, until we reach the true torso of the composition at the Con fuoco at bar 51.
The composition from this point onwards is a conventional sonata-allegro. The first theme, a falling articulated triad followed by a softer more stepwise response, is notable for its construction in 9 bars—a first part in five bars and a second in four. Measure 60 presents us with the start of the transition, suggested by the sudden recurrence of the principal theme but yanked violently down a whole step to B-flat. This builds into an explosive outburst in D-minor at rehearsal A, then returns to B-flat.
We are now witness to another formal obfuscation on the part of Hensel. The music at measure 75, an elegant, Mozartian/morse-code melody in the violins is clearly a contrasting theme to all that we’ve heard before. It has even arrived in E-flat, which while note strictly a key we would be used to seeing in an overture in C major is certainly within easy reach given its proximity to C minor. However, this melody lasts only 8 measures before disappearing into a variation by the woodwinds alone. Rehearsal B, then, gives us another new theme, now in G-major and in a lyricism that contrasts even more. Only in hindsight, then, does it become clear that the Mozartian-theme was still a feature of the transition, not a second theme; the true second theme is the beautiful cantabile melody intoned at B.
The second theme itself is not strictly even, composed first in a five bar phrase and the reiterated in the woodwinds in 6 bars. An additional secondary theme appears at measure 100, though clearly a relative of the first. Measure 110 features a running scales in the strings—almost Mannheim-rocket like—which burst into the closing theme at measure 118, a falling series of arpeggios common amongst cadential figures of opera overtures (particularly Rossini).
There is no repeat of the exposition in Hensel’s model, which is an interesting side-note in the discussion about compositions that do or did do include the indication to play the exposition in a sonata form twice. We shall side-step that rabbit hole for the time-being and instead observe that this closing theme, then, functions both as the wrap-up of the exposition and a transition into the development, modulating away from G (the dominant of the home key) and to the key of the odd Mozartian melody from the earlier transition, E-flat. Here, however, the first theme is presented in transposition instead. As with many Romantic developments, including those of Felix Mendelssohn and the later Robert Schumann, the large scale harmonic planning becomes much more important than just local modulations in the development. For Hensel, the first six bars of the development are repeated a whole step higher (in the key of F), then spin out through woodwind quarter notes for eight bars moving from the key of E-minor to the key of B-flat. Measure 156 sees a return of the primary theme, which creates a strange feeling of recapitulation within the development. Four bars later, however, we have moved to C-minor, and by the time of measure 168 the key has drifted all the way to F#.
Two measures after D we seem to have arrived at the recapitulation. In conventional nomenclature, a “false recapitulation” usually occurs when the primary theme returns in an incorrect key (usually the subdominant—see Beethoven’s Eroica symphony for perhaps the most famous example of this). However, like Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony examined earlier in this project, the false recapitulation here is created by using a weakened version of the first theme, in the correct key, but incorrectly orchestrated and quickly undermined by harmonic motion away. The horns may play the correct melody in C major, but the tonic chord is in first inversion, and after two measures seems has turned into a dominant for F major (which would, incidentally, be that submediant we would expect to find in a false recapitulation).
At 180, however, with bursting arpeggios in G, we have clearly reached the true retransition, and after transitioning through the same martial music that set up the original exposition, the recapitulation bursts onto the scene at measure 196. Of the recapitulation, there is not much to be said. It is compressed and transposed in much the same way as would be expected of any sonata form from its time. We shall, then, skip to the coda, of which there is a good deal to say.
Like the finale to Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (mentioned earlier), then coda to this overture begins with a slightly awkward combination of written instructions and printed music. The tempo indication is “Piu presto e sempre accelerando.” Fine—except that Hensel has changed the note values to be much much longer than the rest of the composition. This is still objectively fine—the tempo just needs to be fast enough that the newly augmented note values still feel like an increase in tempo. Perhaps an allegro tempo of 2-beats per bar? Except then we notice the basses in measure 290, and the rest of the strings in measure 294—16th note tremolos! We cannot even argue that Hensel meant 8th notes for the tremolo slashes, as measure 294 makes the relationship explicit when she writes both sixteenth notes and tremolos.
As I said, this is similar to some problems in works by Schumann (and other composers), where the prevailing harmonic, melodic, and musical logic suggests a certain tempo and tremolos start being introduced that either bog down the tempo or else suggest a ridiculous flurry of activity. Being that this composition did not get the same tried-and-tested outings as works in “The Canon™”, and we are comfortable doing what I’m suggesting in many of the problematic spots in better-known works, I recommend something that may be a bit unpopular—disregard the indication that the tremolos should be measured and instead play the passage at the tempo that makes musical and dramatic sense. The effect of the activity in the strings would still be maintained (which would never feel all that rhythmic even when played strictly notated) while the overall spirit of the composition would be better served. This is strictly my opinion, however, and I encourage everyone to form their own way to navigate this one awkward place (bonus points if you do so by actually performing it!).
Mendelssohn-Hensel’s harmonic language is firmly rooted in the early 19th-century fashion, perhaps a tad on the conservative side. Most unusual is how directly she “yanks” the first theme down from C-major to B-flat at the beginning of the sonata-form transition, and the following false second theme in E-flat major, a distant (but not totally foreign) relation to the home key. None of this is to suggest that it is overly “simple,” or otherwise not composed with great craft. But there is nothing that necessarily deserves writing about that is not better served by listening or otherwise playing through the piece.
Like her harmonic language, Fanny Mendelssohn’s use of rhythm is neither revolutionary nor necessarily remarkable amongst her peers (but then again, rhythm was not divorced from its harmonic interest until much later composers). We have already discussed the metric change of the introduction to the sonata torso and the ramifications that has for the audience’s perception of form and line. Beyond that, rhythm is a secondary (or even tertiary) feature to the other aspects of composition.
As this is Mendelssohn-Hensel’s only work for orchestra alone, her art of orchestration is here under the greatest scrutiny, and she clearly knew how to compose idiomatically for the ensemble. There are passages for strings and winds each alone, and a number of beautiful woodwind solos (particularly in the second theme of the recapitulation). There is one odd measure worth commenting on that is pointed out explicitly in the preface to the published edition. Over the first three measures of the false recapitulation (measure 173-175), the trumpets blare out the main theme in octaves, arpeggiating down from a G above the staff (the second trumpet an octave lower), then joining to unison and dropping down all the way through the harmonic series to the C below the bass clef staff. For those of you playing at home, this an octave below the pedal tone C on the modern trumpet. As this is not possible to perform as written, the editor (and conductor of the modern premiere of the work, Elke Mascha Blankenburg), has generously provided an alternate version in which the trumpets instead reverse direction after reaching the lowest G of their instrument and end on a middle C. This works; however, from the writing of an octave, a fifth, and then thirds (counting in reverse), it was clear Mendelssohn-Hensel was actually looking to reach the natural fundamental pedal tone of the series on the downbeat at 176. While much much more dangerous (and difficult) from a musical perspective, it would be interesting to explore the effect if this final C still dropped the octave to the pedal tone. In any case, the part as originally written is impossible and the new parts bring it back into the realm of the playable without completely distorting the text.
For whatever (good) reason, a number of professional, semi-professional, and amateur performances of the Overture in C Major have started appearing on YouTube in the last few years. There still, however, is only one professional CD release, JoAnn Falletta and the Women’s Philharmonic, released in 1992. The playing quality on this album is greater than most of those on YouTube, given that most of those are live and not studio recordings; however, meaning no disrespect, I believe many of the recordings on YouTube interpret the piece a bit better. The tempi on the professional recording are a bit sluggish at times, and the Coda (whose problems we discussed earlier) is taken at an unfortunately slow tempo (even observing the printed page, a much much brighter tempo is demanded, and is achieved by many other conductors on YouTube). My favorite recording right now is Mei-Ann Chen’s live performance with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra from 2016 (seen at the top of this page), which, while lacking some of the polish of the earlier release, gives a much more compelling reading of the composition. As always, however, something is to be gained from listening to each available recording, and I would encourage all to listen widely to gain a feel for contemporary accounts of the piece. You may come to find—as I have—that perhaps a definitive performance is yet to come.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was indisputably a gifted composer. It is a shame, given the time in which she lived, that more opportunity wasn’t available for her to express, develop, and make known her orchestral talents. While it is a small work of absolute orchestral music we have to represent her in the concert hall, it is certainly at home amongst works for small or medium-sized orchestra, and shows great promise of joining the repertoire if current trends continue. It would do well paired with works by her brother, of course, and also the other mid-century romantics (Robert Schumann), but this does run the risk of perhaps being too much of the same unless contrasted with something else. Perhaps a neo-classical work by Stravinsky (his violin concerto, for instance?) could round out the batch.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s exploration of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. The next entry will be the start of a series of three entries in a sort of mini-project in the whole project. As you may or may not have noticed, all the composers thus far, while women, have been white. Next post, then, we take a look at Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, the first major premiere by a female African-American composer. This will be followed by looks at symphonies by the African-American men William Grant Still and William Dawson, as these three composers premiered these three important symphonies within a few years of each other at the beginning of the 1930s. It should be an exciting project, and I look forward to exploring with you.
Citron, Marcia J. 2001 "Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy) [Hensel], Fanny." Grove Music Online. 1 Oct. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000018387.
Hensel-Mendelssohn, Fanny; ed. Blankenburg. Overture C-Dur. Furore-Edition. Kassel, 1994.
Women’s Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta. The Women’s Philharmonic. Koch 3-7169-2H1, 1992/2008, CD.