Featured Guest blogger: Musicologists on Fanny Hensel's songs

Featured Guest blogger: Musicologists on Fanny Hensel's songs

Dr. Penny Brandt continues her report on the 2018 joint conference of the American Musicological Society/Society for Music Theory.

My favorite session at AMS/SMT this year was the Sunday morning joint session on “The Songs of Fanny Hensel” chaired by R. Larry Todd (Duke University). In this session, ten scholars gave “lightning” presentations describing their research and analysis of a song by Hensel. [The description of the session and paper titles, as given in the conference program, are copied following this essay]. Each presenter will contribute an essay to The Songs of Fanny Hensel, edited by Stephen Rodgers (University of Oregon), currently under review by Oxford University Press. The presentations focused on Hensel’s music, with little discussion of the historical context or feminist biography that has dominated discussions of Hensel to date. While I had small concerns for the format and positioning of the session (which I will address at the end of this essay), I believe that this is exactly the kind of session that is needed for our discipline to begin taking (specific) women composers seriously. I am including a brief description of each presentation, with my hope being to encourage readers to seek out the book The Songs of Fanny Hensel in order take in the full scope of the research and analysis.

Fanny Hensel, 1842

Amanda Lalonde (University of Saskatchewan) offered “The Wilderness at Home: Woods-Romanticism and Musical Performance in Hensel’s Eichendorff Songs.” She explored the dichotomy of the domestic sphere and the wilderness through abrupt changes in texture and harmony in Hensel’s settings of poems by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857). Lalonde explained that although Hensel was positioned in the domestic realm, some of her family members described her home as a secluded and wild haven, and speculated that these song settings may have contributed to a sense of wilderness at home.

Scott Burnham (Graduate Center, CUNY) presented “Waldszenen and Abendbilder: Hensel, Lenau, and the Nature of Melancholy.” Abendbilder is a poem by Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850) that describes evening descending on a pastoral scene, darkening in mood. Burnham demonstrates that Hensel reveled in the melancholic images by creating contrasts between a lush, joyous depiction of nature and a hopeless stillness, again primarily through texture and harmony in the accompaniment. He also pointed out that Hensel chose a low tessatura for the voice and made use of the repetitions inherent in strophic form to emphasize hopelessness.

In “Songs of Travel: Hensel’s Wanderings,” Susan Wollenberg (Oxford University) observed that both Hensel and her brother Felix Mendelssohn composed music inspired by their travels. Hensel drew on a standard vocabulary created by composers like Schubert to depict (for instance) images of water for her Gondellied. Then she demonstrated Hensel’s use of motivic development and the contrast between a conventional introduction and surprising harmony shifts in the beginning of the song.

I have to pause here and interject: “Did you know Hensel composed songs that are in English?!” I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea that she did.  Voice teachers everywhere, rejoice at the idea of assigning Hensel to younger students who are not ready for foreign language study! This was one of my take-aways from “Song in and as Translation: Hensel’s Drei Lieder nach Heine von Mary Alexander.”  Jennifer Ronyak (Kunstuniversität Graz) discussed three poems by Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), set by Hensel in the original German. Hensel later received an English translation of the poems by Mary Alexander and set the poems quite differently, accommodating the differences in language in Alexander’s translation.

 “‘In this elusive language’: Hensel’s Byron Songs” was given by Susan Youens (University of Notre Dame).  The poet Johann von Goethe’s admiration for the poetry of Lord Byron led to the British poet’s popularity in Germany. Youens pointed out that there are at least 95 settings of the poem “There be none of Beauty’s daughters,” but Hensel’s stands out in respect to rhythm and emphasis of certain words and syllables.

 “Hidden in Plain Sight: Tonal Pairing of the Tonic and Subdominant in Hensel’s Songs” was given by Tyler Osborne (University of Oregon).  He explored tonic and subdominant relationships in Hensel’s Die Äolsharfe auf dem Schloß zu Baden, demonstrating how harmonic ambiguity creates instability and unease that complements bittersweet nostalgia in the poem.

Stephen Rodgers’ “Plagal Cadences in Hensel’s Songs” argued that one of the unique aspects of Hensel’s songs is her frequent use of plagal cadences in place of authentic cadences.  In the song Zu deines Lagers füßen, there are examples of antecedent phrases with weakened half-cadences ending with the minor version of the dominant chord (v), followed by a consequent phrase with a plagal cadence.  These often create modal stylings that look backward (to J.S. Bach), but Rogers also describes them as innovative — after all, modal harmonies began to return to popularity at the end of the Romantic era.

Harald Krebs (University of Victoria) presented “Revisions of Declamation in Hensel’s Song Autographs.” Having studied many of Hensel’s manuscripts, Krebs was able to show her careful attention to text setting through rhythmic emphasis. In one song, an unpublished setting of Marianne von Willemer’s poem “Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen,” he presented the original sketch of the vocal melody and compared it to the final version of the song, which offsets the melody by half of a measure. As Krebs explained, the original metrical stresses were a better complement to the first verse of the song. However, the final version emphasizes more strong words throughout the subsequent four verses, with a clearer focus on the poem’s meaning.

 “Modulating Couplets in Hensel’s Songs” was offered by Yonatan Malin (University of Colorado Boulder). In Frühlingsnacht, another poem by Eichendorff, Malin postulates that Hensel paid careful attention to structural aspects in poetry, using settings of second phrases to reinterpret settings of first phrases harmonically.

Jürgen Thym (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester) presented “Reading Poetry through Music: Hensel and Others.” Thym compared Hensel’s 1827 setting of Heinrich Heine’s Und wüssten’s die Blumen to settings by Robert Schumann in 1840 and Robert Franz in 1850. Thym contrasted Schumann’s use of expressive difference between the soothing piano and the seething voice with Hensel’s more passionate setting, and the angry, explosive version by Franz.

Overall, this was a fantastic set of presentations and was reasonably well-attended for a Sunday morning session. As R. Larry Todd noted, a couple of decades ago, it would have been thought ludicrous for someone to propose an entire joint session at AMS/SMT on Hensel. The presentations were interesting and insightful, and they gave a cohesive analysis of Hensel’s style: striking contrasts of texture and harmony that correlate to meaning in the poetry, careful rhythmic setting of texts, and influences from other composers — notably J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert. As I stated at the beginning of this essay, this is exactly the kind of session we need more of for women composers to be seen and valued in our discipline. Kudos to everyone involved!

However. (Of course there is a however.) I would have liked to see the session held earlier in the weekend, rather than early on Sunday morning, when attendance is always lighter, since many people are already leaving. Also, while I understand the utility of the lightning presentation format for this session, I would have preferred full presentations on Hensel, particularly from some of the presenters. I’ll admit that I enjoyed (and agreed with) some papers more than others, but this essay doesn’t have the space for my dissenting opinions.

When it came time for questions, I asked these scholars how the existing historical research and feminist biographical studies of Hensel informed their work. I realized it was a bit of an impertinent question, given that the stated mission of the session was to discuss Hensel’s compositions in terms of music alone. But, I’m used to being the impertinent one in the room, and I had noticed how bits of biography and feminist discussions slipped into most of the presentations — quotes about her desire to travel freely as “lads” could do, the setting of her private domestic sphere, questions of how her own personality and identity (including socialized gender identity) influenced her interpretations of poems and unique musical style. Some of the presenters felt that they had succeeded in divorcing Hensel’s backstory from her work; others admitted to struggling to reconcile the biography with the music. Jennifer Ronyak said that she did not feel it was necessary to leave the feminist impulse behind. Harald Krebs said that it is important to incorporate past work and noted that Susan Wollenberg had done a particularly good job of merging the two.

I found myself thinking of Marian Wilson Kimber’s important essay “The ‘Suppression’ of Fanny Mendelssohn: Rethinking Feminist Biography.” The article, from the Fall 2002 edition of 19th-Century Music, considers the many perspectives that have clouded our understanding of Hensel’s work and agency. She examines the context in which Hensel’s family made claims about her work and notes that stories about Hensel from her family members must also be viewed through the lens of 19th-Century ideas and prejudices, just as her own words and choices are. She writes “The difficulties encountered in telling the story of Hensel’s life reveal a need for a feminist biography that balances an understanding of larger cultural constraints with recognition of individual female agency.” The entire session devoted to Hensel’s music (complete with delicious recordings and live performances!) was the highlight of my weekend. And yet, I will borrow a melancholic and nostalgic mood from Hensel herself to lament that allowing the expansion of Hensel studies means accepting the occasional absence of the nuanced contextual perspectives of feminist musicology that I enjoy so much.

Okay, melancholy over. More of this at AMS/SMT, please!

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From the conference program (here in PDF format)

Joint Session: The Songs of Fanny Hensel
R. Larry Todd (Duke University), Chair

This special-format joint session includes ten “lightning talks” on the songs of Fanny Hensel. There has been a wealth of scholarship on Hensel in recent years, but most of it is historical or editorial; detailed discussion of her music is rare. This session places Hensel’s music front and center, focusing on the genre that she said “suits me best.” The presenters cover a wide variety of topics, yet they are united in the conviction that the best way to appreciate Hensel’s importance in the history of the nineteenth-century lied is to thoroughly examine what she wrote, in its many contexts.

The presentations are organized into four sections, each of which highlights a different facet of Hensel’s lied aesthetic: her fascination with songs about nature and travel, her settings of English verse, her tonal ingenuity, and her sensitivity to poetic form. Each presenter concentrates on one song and places it within a larger argument
about Hensel’s music. 

Nature and Travel
Amanda Lalonde (University of Saskatchewan), “The Wilderness at Home: Woods, Romanticism and Musical Performance in Hensel’s Eichendorff Songs”
Scott Burnham (Graduate Center, CUNY), “Waldszenen and Abendbilder: Hensel, Lenau, and the Nature of Melancholy”
Susan Wollenberg (University of Oxford), “Songs of Travel: Hensel’s Wanderings”

English Verse   

Jennifer Ronyak (Kunstuniversität Graz), “Song in and as Translation: Hensel’s Drei Lieder nach Heine von Mary Alexander”
Susan Youens (University of Notre Dame), “‘In this elusive language’: Hensel’s Byron

Tonal Ingenuity
Tyler Osborne (University of Oregon), “Hidden in Plain Sight: Tonal Pairing of the Tonic and Subdominant in Hensel’s Songs”
Stephen Rodgers (University of Oregon), “Plagal Cadences in Hensel’s Songs”

Sensitivity to Poetic Form
Harald Krebs (University of Victoria), “Revisions of Declamation in Hensel’s Song Autographs”
Yonatan Malin (University of Colorado Boulder), “Modulating Couplets in Hensel’s Songs”
Jürgen Thym (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester), “Reading Poetry through Music: Hensel and Others

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