Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: Overture in C


Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel is, for many, one of the most celebrated female composers today. Her incredible catalogue of chamber music in particular has pleased many musicians and audiences alike over the last few decades. However, this has not always been the case. Hensel was often limited, in her lifetime, due to the attitudes towards women and music. Her father once wrote to her saying:


“Music will perhaps become a profession for your brother Felix, but for you it can, and must only be an ornament.”


Even though their father didn’t agree with Hensel’s obvious talent for music, her brother Felix published some of her works under his name. Their intensely close relationship makes it difficult to know whether that potentially hindered Fanny’s attempts to break into the Western canon properly. Fanny was always really bothered about what Felix’s opinion of her was. She was also his biggest critic, with the two often arguing over bars of music. 

Hensel composed her Overture in C around 1832, and it remained her only purely orchestral work. It isn’t the only orchestral work, however, with her also composing concert arias and several oratorios. However, the Overture in C is the only work that features no extras, and is focused on the orchestra alone. 

Like most of her works, the Overture remained unpublished during her lifetime and was only published in 1994 by Furore-Edition, who released a typeset, edited edition of the score and parts. As the structural title suggests, the overture is mapped out as other overtures from the early 19th century were. As there is no story related with this overture it lets the music remain as absolute music, allowing us to get a true sense of Hensel’s style and musical development.


The Music

Opening with a slow introduction initiated by the horns, the sweet sounding strings enter with fragments of the main theme. The winds respond to the string motif as the overture is beginning to awaken. The two sections begin with a call and response figure that repeats for a number of measures before the two unite before the next section. 

The sparkling string runs at the new Allegro section sets the overture off in scintillating style. Fizzing with excitement, the theme jumps around the orchestra. Chiefly led by the upper strings, the winds sometimes get a quick play of the theme too. 

Hensel builds the texture again with a bouncing theme in the strings. This leads to a really sweet woodwind interlude before the highly pastoral string theme. Accentuated by pulsating horns, the syncopated rhythm is highly infectious and memorable. 

The quick changes in dynamics also adds to the intensity and drama of each section. The loud blasts from the trumpets and horns opposes some of the more delicate playing from the strings. Although her harmonic language and use of rhythm is nothing out of the ordinary, it’s the way that she marries these two things together that makes such a stand-out overture. 

The intensity and excitement is kept at the forefront of the overture, through darker material led by the bassoons and lower strings, to the majestic call and response motif between the horns and trumpets, the atmosphere is practically buzzing throughout. 

As her only purely orchestral work, it is with no doubt that Hensel’s orchestration skills were, and are, under tight scrutiny. She clearly knew her way around an orchestra and how to write effectively for this ensemble. From lyrical wind solos and solis, to the luscious string writing, it is with no doubt that Hensel could have done even greater things had she composed more works for orchestra. 

The overture ends with a bouncy variation of the theme as the strings build up the scalic theme for the final time. Through repeated chords on the first beat of the bars, the ending builds tension before the final tonic chords sings out across the orchestra. 


Final Thoughts

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was, with absolutely no doubt, one of the most talented composers of her time. Sadly, due to social pressures and attitudes, we never got to see the full extent of her talents. Her Overture in C is a small work with great power. With sparkling melodies and evocative orchestrations, the work represents her style in a really effective way. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Louise Farrenc: Overture No.1


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