Beethoven Reexamined

How the composers Emilie Mayer, Fanny Hensel, and Louise Farrenc use Beethoven to find their freedom in the mid-19th century—and take advantage of it.

By Google Arts & Culture

Text: Merle Krafeld, VAN Magazin

Berlin, April 21, 1850: The concert hall of the Konzerthaus (then Königliches Schauspielhaus) is full and the audience eagerly awaits. The program is diverse: a symphony and concert overture combined with choral and chamber pieces, all composed by Emilie Mayer. The composer boldly placed an invitation to the concert—the first at which only her music would be played—in the most relevant specialist publications of the time. A few days later, the New Berlin Music newspaper (Neue Berliner Musikzeitung) reported: "Until now, women have, at most, conquered the art of songwriting and have indeed succeeded in portraying both intimacy and meaning, but a quatuor (quartet) or a symphony, with all the artistry in lyricism and orchestration this entails—this must go down as an extraordinary, extremely rare case." Why is it so astounding to critics in the mid-19th century that a woman could write an entire symphony? 

"In the 19th century, the gender images formed by society from around the mid-18th century onward become established," explains musicologist Cornelia Bartsch. "For example, the idea that male and female bodies are fundamentally different and are associated with opposing gender characters—society saw this differently before. The multilayered discussions around this new gender contrast could perhaps be summarized in that women were said to be more emotional, while men were more rational. Women should go about their business in private, while men should be out in public. Much of this haunts us to this day through widespread gender stereotypes." Back then, composition was still studied in private tuition, which women were also allowed to receive. However, middle-class women whose families could afford lessons in composition were not envisaged to have a career or earn their own living. They were destined for the role of the wife. 

Autograph Score "Das letzte Lied" Page 3, Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Show lessRead more

Composer Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and her husband, Wilhelm Hensel

As such, young women were allowed to study composition, but were not meant to perform in public. Similarly, it was also assumed that women were better at composing heartwarming songs to sing in their own homes, and men were better at large-scale, complex pieces "that would be perceived as an intellectual work of art," according to Cornelia Bartsch's summary of the mindset at the time. She adds, "This would also include symphonies, which counted as public addresses to a large audience and were performed in public concert halls."In addition to a fundamental education, these pieces required time to compose. Time is something that middle-class wives in the 19th century had little of, alongside running a large household with numerous servants, pregnancy, recovery from childbirth, and raising children. "It wasn't all about the time though," says Cornelia Bartsch. "By definition, the role of the middle-class wife simply could not be combined with another occupation," she adds.

The Music Room of Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn), Julius Eduard Wilhelm Helfft, 1849, From the collection of: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Show lessRead more

Despite these unpromising conditions, they did exist: the female composers who found a way to share their music with the outside world and who were born for their own artistic points of view. For Emilie Mayer, Fanny Hensel, and Louise Farrenc, the legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven also played a role in this.

Beethoven with the manuscript of the Missa solemnis, Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820, From the collection of: Beethoven-House Bonn
Show lessRead more

"I think it is because we were young when Beethoven was in his final years."

Fanny Hensel, born in 1805, received piano and composition tuition from a young age. As part of his musical education, her younger brother Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was taught by high-caliber teachers such as the musician and composer Carl Zelter, and Fanny was able to join in with his private lessons. Even Hensel's marriage was an exception, since her husband—the painter Wilhelm Hensel, whom she married in 1829—supported her ongoing artistic activities. They even created a large number of collaborative pieces, such as songs with lyrics written by Wilhelm Hensel and compositions that he decorated with elaborate illustrations.

Autograph Score "Das letzte Lied" Page 4, Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Show lessRead more

Fanny Hensel's musical work was to a large extent confined to her house in Berlin. Nevertheless, she managed to reach all the key cultural figures in the city (and those who stopped by in passing) by inviting them into her home. As such, as many as 300 people came to the Sunday music recitals in her summer house at 3 Leipziger Street, including Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Clara Schumann. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and occasionally Hensel herself were played. The composer took part in the recitals as a pianist and conductor.
Fanny Hensel's brother, meanwhile, was touring Europe as a composer and musician. The pair would write to one another regularly with critiques that were ruthless in nature, treating one another as colleagues and equals. In one exchange in 1835, Felix criticized Fanny's recently produced string quartet by claiming that some of the movements were "not in any particular key." Felix could not comprehend the key change or the form of the movements. The musicologist Annegret Huber also described these pages of the string quartet as "experimental" on the part of the composer.

Fanny responds with a letter in which she accuses her brother of a simplicity in some of his pieces that is both childlike and childish at the same time. The two siblings clearly have different approaches, and Fanny Hensel brings Beethoven into play to mark this distinction. During his lifetime, he was all but idolized, though many of his works—especially those produced during his later years—were perceived by his contemporaries as more gloomy than beautiful, and largely incomprehensible. This irritation was often provoked by his handling of harmonies and questions of form in particular—the very aspects Hensel's brother criticized about her string quartet.

Portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1842, From the collection of: The Jewish Museum, New York
Show lessRead more

Fanny Hensel asks in her letter why she composes differently to her brother and provides an answer right away in her typically modest mode of expression: "I think it is because we were young while Beethoven was in his final years and that his manner, however feeble, had such a profound influence on us. It is all too poignant, all too powerful. You have lived through it and written through it, while I have remained stuck in it." Hensel's self-portrayal as Beethoven's successor is a clever strategy in itself because he was clearly an authority figure for the siblings (Fanny even named her only son after the composer). Suggesting that Felix had "lived through" Beethoven's final years is, according to Annegret Huber, an indication that even Felix had experimented more heavily with keys during an earlier phase of his career, but had since avoided doing so.

At the same time, Huber interprets Fanny's notion of remaining "stuck" by no means as stagnation. Instead, the composer is more likely examining the problems Beethoven is attempting to solve to a greater extent than her brother, and proposing solutions of her own. Such problems include how musical connections can be created between the various movements in a piece, and how to handle the keys that are further removed from the main key. "With her string quartet, Fanny Hensel emancipated herself from what her teacher Zelter had taught her," Huber summarizes. "Even from the lessons she learned in examining Beethoven." Cornelia Bartsch goes one step further here: "Fanny Hensel's string quartet is a form of musical correspondence on the subject of Beethoven's later years. She refers musically to one of her brother's pieces, in which he deals once again with Beethoven's later work. Felix gives the impression that he wants to make sense of Beethoven. In Beethoven's Op. 74, the opening motif leads quickly into a completely different key. Felix converts it into what he deems a proper cadence in his String Quartet Op. 12. Fanny takes up where her brother left off and, rather than attempting to make sense of Beethoven, she broadens the musical playing field and becomes even more experimental. And in doing so, she demonstrates just how rebellious Beethoven was." The extent to which Fanny Hensel believes in her own artistic standing—despite her reluctant way of describing it—is evident in the fact that she asks her brother as a matter of course if he will perform her quartet. Whether he does, nobody knows.

"She cast off the shackles of a style that oscillated between Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and clearly devoted herself to studying Beethoven."
Emilie Mayer, another of the three composers mentioned earlier, was just as scatterbrained as she was talented in both sculpture and composition. She was constantly losing hats, gloves, and umbrellas, yet one of her sculpture pieces was even exhibited at the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in Dresden. She concentrated on composition, made confident appearances as a professional composer, and was added to the Berlin address book (the equivalent of LinkedIn at the time) under that title. Her eight symphonies, several large orchestral pieces, musical comedy, and numerous chamber pieces were performed frequently and very successfully in both her home country and abroad. At the same time, she managed to avoid the gender expectations of middle-class wives by not marrying.

In May 1812, Emilie Mayer was born in Friedland, Germany, as the daughter of a pharmacist. Due to the untimely death of her mother, she quickly became a half-orphan. Not much is known of her early years, until one fateful day in 1840 when her father shoots himself. Emilie Mayer moves to Stettin to live with her brother, where she expands on the piano lessons she has taken since childhood by attending composition lessons with Carl Loewe. To save money, she opts for group lessons, but Loewe dismisses the idea because he recognizes her great talent and wants to support her one-on-one. Mayer is also a fast learner: her first dated composition appears in 1842, and just five years later, she very successfully premieres two symphonies. In that same year, Mayer also goes to Berlin to study composition in greater depth with the music theorist and Beethoven specialist Adolph Bernhard Marx, and with the composer and conductor Wilhelm Wieprecht. Fanny Hensel, who died in the same year, is unlikely to have made Mayer's acquaintance in Berlin.

In 1848, Emilie Mayer publishes her first few pieces in print: the lieder Op. 5–7. At the beginning of her career, she plays it safe with this rather female-oriented genre, then quickly moves on to bigger ensembles. First, she hosts private concerts of her own chamber music, then in April 1850, her first big concert. The press is for the most part enthusiastic, and further publications, performances, and concert tours follow.
Her studies with a designated Beethoven expert and admirer from 1847 onward also seem to be influencing her compositions. In 1852, a critic writes in the Echo of her Symphony in B minor: "She has cast off the shackles of a style that oscillated between Haydn and Mozart, and clearly devoted herself to studying Beethoven."There are distinct echos of Beethoven throughout this symphony, as substantiated by the musicologist Claudia Breitfeld, yet Mayer carries the motifs forward in her own particular way. The critic in 1852 takes a similar view: "It is clear that the artist is the master of her own pen, spurred on by her own illustrious ideas, yet her own creative prowess in leaning so delicately on the magnificent original is to be rejoiced."

Another critic from the New Berlin Music newspaper (Neue Berliner Musikzeitung) emphasizes the sense of liberty that accompanies this, which—unlike his colleague from the Echo—does not appeal to him at all.He suggests that in previous symphonies, Mayer retained "the exact same form in the symphony movements," and adds, "In this case, however, she allows her thoughts to fade into fantastical reflections, wavers precariously in the motifs at times, and scrambles around for an instrument she can catch a hold of and revive, in order not to lose her train of thought."Even in her chamber pieces from the 1850s, a contemporary critic observes a greater fondness for experimentation through her examination of Beethoven: "In one of her more recent quintets […] the composer approximated Beethoven's forms more closely. As a result, her concept had a greater scope, which the composer used to her advantage by way of her audacious revival." Mayer continued working as a professional composer up until her death in 1883.

"If a young composer were to give me variations such as those by L. Farrenc, I would praise him highly on account of his favorable talents and excellent education, to which they ubiquitously bear witness."
This was Robert Schumann's take on Louise Farrenc's Variations on a Russian Air (Air Russe Varié) Op. 17 in 1836, which would have covered quite a distance before it reached him, since the composer lived in Paris. "Paris was opera-mad at the time," says musicologist Christin Heitmann. "Anybody who wanted to be somebody in Paris had to compose for musical theater. Yet Louise Farrenc showed absolutely no ambition in this regard."

Nonconformity is something that Louise Farrenc, also born in 1804, learns from a young age. She grows up in a Parisian artists' colony with a rich cultural life, where she is encouraged by her liberal parents as a child to play piano, among other things. At the time, women were allowed to study at the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire de Paris), but were not allowed to enroll for a higher education in composition. Therefore, at the age of 15 years old, Farrenc receives private tuition from Anton Reicha, who was personally acquainted with Beethoven. She continues her lessons in composition even after she marries the flutist and music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who publishes many of Beethoven's works as well as Farrenc's. Initially, Farrenc writes smaller ensemble pieces, then from 1834 onward, she produces two concert overtures followed by three symphonies and a number of chamber music pieces for large ensembles. Farrenc bases her work on the ideal of German instrumental music, which interests only a small group of people in Paris. Among them is the Conservatoire Concert Society Orchestra (Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire), which was founded in 1828 with the explicit goal of regularly performing Beethoven's symphonies. The Society rarely performs any music by current French composers, except for Louise Farrenc's Symphony No. 3—to great success! As such, this admiration for Beethoven, which at least spilled over to a small group of enthusiasts in France, saw that an orchestra in Paris—soon to be counted as one of the best in Europe—focused solely on instrumental music and even played some of Farrenc's pieces.

Farrenc's compositions do include some references to Beethoven, but are not concerned with the problems Beethoven is attempting to solve, as in Fanny Hensel's music. "Louise Farrenc does her own thing," says Christin Heitmann. "She has a very particular way of using wind instruments, for example. She wrote a sextet for piano with a quintet of wind instruments, which has never been heard of before. And in her symphonies, the wind instruments have a much stronger part than in Beethoven's pieces, for example."

In 1842, Farrenc becomes a piano professor at the Conservatoire and remains there for 30 years. During this time, she fights—among other things—to receive the same wage as her male colleagues. Her Symphony No. 3 is performed and highly praised not only in France, but also in Denmark, Belgium, and Switzerland. She receives the prestigious Chartier Prize (Prix Chartier) twice for her chamber music.

Very little is known of Louise Farrenc's view of the Parisian music world and her own work, since only a few of her letters and sources are preserved. Christin Heitmann finds it a great shame: "I would really love to know more about her self-image and confidence as a composer. When you look at her work and the context in which it was created—the whole of Paris believing that only Germans could compose symphonies, not the French—then she, a woman who was not allowed to learn how to play or conduct wind instruments (at least as far as we know), manages to do just that. She writes these symphonies with such strength and such charisma."

Autograph Score "Das letzte Lied" Autograph Score "Das letzte Lied", Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Show lessRead more

Significant artistic careers are largely based on fortunate circumstances and coincidences. In the 19th century, however, female composers needed so much more than their male colleagues—to even have the opportunity as a woman to try out composition and to be supported in it as a result, was more than improbable. Even the possibility of being able to work as a professional artist as an adult was an absolute exception. Emilie Mayer, Fanny Hensel, and Louise Farrenc are examples of three such exceptions, who were also exceptional talents. They all reexamined Beethoven in some way—not only as his successors, but also in order to gain an opening through his work and to create space for their own artistic ideas.


Letters by Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, quoted from Eva Weisweiler: The Music Doesn't Want to Slide Without You (Die Musik will gar nicht rutschen ohne Dich) and Annegret Huber: The Concept of Montage as an Analytical Category (Das Konzept der Montage als analytische Kategorie). Fanny Hensel's Metaphor Game About "Youth/Old Age" in a New Light (Fanny Hensels Metaphernspiel um »Jugend/Altersschwäche« in neuem Licht).   

Press reviews of Emilie Mayer quoted from Almut Runge-Woll: The Composer Emilie Mayer (Die Komponistin Emilie Mayer). 

Robert Schumann on Louise Farrenc quoted from Christin Heitmann: The Orchestral and Chamber Music of Louise Farrenc (Die Orchester- und Kammermusik von Louise Farrenc). 

Cornelia Bartsch: Goodbye: Fanny Hensel's Examination of Beethoven's Late Works (Lebewohl. Fanny Hensels Auseinandersetzung mit Beethovens späten Werken). 

Claudia Breitfeld: A Manly, Passionate Spirit Weaves Through It: Emilie Mayer's Examination of Beethoven (Es webt darin ein männlich-leidenschaftlicher Geist. Emilie Mayers Auseinandersetzung mit Beethoven). 

Christin Heitmann: The Orchestral and Chamber Music of Louise Farrenc. 

Annegret Huber: Smash, Dissolve or Create? Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in a Dispute Over Musical Formal Concepts Based on Beethoven's Later Years (Zerschlagen, zerfließen oder erzeugen? Fanny Hensel und Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy im Streit um musikalische Formkonzepte nach Beethovens letzter Zeit).

Credits: Story

Text: Merle Krafeld, VAN Magazin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Beethoven Everywhere
The music that's everywhere, the memory that's everlasting
View theme
Google apps