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Meet The Musical Mendelssohns: Felix And Fanny


By NPR Staff

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Monday, January 28, 2013

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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