This blog post of May 17, 2020 was one of our most popular of last year, and as we passed the one-year anniversary of the shutdowns and quarantines in response to Covid-19, it is worthwhile to recall Fanny Mendelssohn’s response to the frightening pandemic of 190 years ago.  Thank you again to Dr. Regine Angela Thompson!  And with the celebration of the Easter holiday, Fanny’s “Easter” Sonata — first lost, and then misattributed to her brother for more than 150 years — is also worth celebrating  ( Sheila Hayman, “A Fanny Mendelssohn masterpiece finally gets its due” (about her “Easter” Sonata for piano; hear the work on Youtube)

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) and her Cholera Cantata 

We welcome today’s featured guest blogger, Regine Angela Thompson, Ph.D..  Dr. Thompson is an author and lecturer who has been focusing on Fanny Mendelssohn for many years. She also serves as advisor and board member for “The Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War” in Culver City, California.

The Corona Epidemic in the year 2020

Our current epidemic can be traced back to November 2019, when we began to hear about it. In spite of repeated warnings from virologists, few people paid much attention until a growing number of people began to die of the Corona Virus. By the end of April, Covid-19 had its hold on all humans around the globe, and our daily life changed drastically.

In our ongoing lock-down, many have less money but more time to read and write, as weeks of quarantine are turning into months. While looking into an uncertain future health-wise and economically, we remember past epidemics, and are trying to figure out what we can learn from such previous outbreaks — and there is also time to think about music!  Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Oratorio on Words from the Bible,” better known as the Cholera CantataMusik für die Toten der Cholera Epidemie, was composed to honor victims of the cholera epidemic in Berlin of 1831.  In the same year Fanny also wrote Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) for her son Sebastian’s first birthday, and Hiob (Job) was finished in October, in time for the second wedding anniversary of Fanny and the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel. All of these works were performed last year by Cappella Clausura (Boston, MA).  The performance of March 30, 2019 is available on YouTube, and their performance of the Cholera Cantata of the next day is here.

Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn), lithograph by Eduard Magnus, ca. 1840

Fanny Mendelssohn and Wilhelm Hensel were married on the 3rd of October, 1829. Two years later, on Tuesday, the 4th of October, 1831, Fanny wrote in her diary about their second wedding anniversary and their enduring great happiness and described the bliss of family life. She noted her son Sebastian’s first birthday and recorded his development in great detail and with much love and parental pride.  But at the same time as she celebrated her personal joy, she was also surrounded by the disease that struck her region.

The Cholera Pandemic in Berlin from August 1831 to February 1832

A quick look at the history of the cholera pandemic and how it raged in Berlin (when Fanny was 26 years old) lets us understand the importance of her Cholera Cantata. According to an official count 1,426 people died of the cholera in Berlin out of a population of 247,500, from September 1831 to February 1832.

In August 1831 a skipper died of the cholera, the “Medieval Plague or Asian Hydra” as it was also called, when he got off his boat in Charlottenburg (the Berlin suburb). Within days the deadly disease held the Prussian capital in its grip. It was not the first encounter with the cholera and people were terrified, just like today, as we witness the corona virus rage throughout the world. Berlin was largely unprepared and without effective measures available to cope with the epidemic, although there had been warnings for months. Prussia was cordoned off immediately at the Oder river, but that could not stop the cholera, which was advancing from India via Russia and Poland, from entering the capital. A cholera hospital with 13 beds was set up quickly at the end of the Dorotheenstraße and was completely overcrowded within days. We also observe the familiar response, that at first many inhabitants of Berlin did not want to recognize the deadly danger and went about their daily lives as usual. They frequented the theaters and music halls, gathered at festivities, attended grand affairs and spent evenings in pubs, trusting their schnapps and beer more than any cautionary measures like staying away from crowds and observing a minimum of personal hygiene.

The royal court took some preventative measures for its own protection and King Friedrich Wilhelm III determined to remain under strict isolation at the Charlottenburg Palace. By October the disgusting stench of disinfectants and the dead filled the entire city. The poor and the sick, living under the worst hygienic conditions in the crowded slums, were hit hardest. A severe lack of clean water and soap gave them little possibility to protect themselves against the fast spreading disease. This was almost 200 years ago when news spread more slowly than the cholera. No city was spared.

From July 19, 1831 until June 14, 1832 Fanny comments on the cholera epidemic in her diary. Her entries are written in a matter of fact way, giving us a wealth of information about the disease, as she recorded family events and remarked about the political situation in Berlin and Europe. On May 8, 1831, she entered in parenthesis, “I just noticed that my present diary style greatly resembles the king’s speech that summarizes the state of the country and the daily events — why have I no humor at all when I write for myself?” In her entry on July 19 of that year she noted, “We have very good news from Paul [the youngest of her siblings], and from Felix from Milan. He urges us to agree to a rendezvous. Concerning public affairs, the cholera is spreading, […] in the entire eastern part of Europe, all the way to Danzig, the cholera rules. The town of Jassy (Romania) has disappeared from the face of the earth, consumed by the cholera, the plague and fire.”

The cholera touched many friends and acquaintances as well as various members of the Mendelssohn family. On Tuesday October 4, 1831, one day after her second wedding anniversary, Fanny’s diary entry reads as follows, “[…] from Felix we received splendid letters from Switzerland and then the latest from Munich. He is beside himself about the cholera and that father forbade him to come to Berlin. I have never read a sadder letter from him than the one from Munich. For a moment we had the idea of getting together in Weimar but unfortunately this is not possible because of the quarantine.” So Felix had to live through the entire cholera time in Paris as he himself suffered an attack. Marie-Cathérine Kiéné (née Leyer), a friend of the family, cared for him faithfully until he had recovered.

In the next paragraph from Sunday, October 4, 1831, Fanny turned to music and her own work, “My Sonntagsmusiken [Sunday concerts] prosper greatly and give me much joy. Yesterday we tried out a new one by me.” The Sonntagsmusiken were given in the spacious Gartensaal (garden room) of their home that could accommodate up to 200 guests. The Hensels kept an open house and Fanny was well known and beloved in all of Berlin for her performances at the piano and her generosity as a hostess. Members of the high society clamored to be invited, and representatives of the Court were always present, parking up to seven royal coaches in front of the home at Leipzigerstraße 3.

These Sonntagsmusiken became increasingly well attended over the years with Fanny presenting her works for piano, her lieder, duets, choral songs, sonatas, the scene Hero and Leander for soprano and piano or orchestra, the Piano Trio which was published posthumously as op. 2, as well as the Orchestral Ouverture of 1830. For its première the orchestra of the Königstädter Theater was engaged. In addition to friends and acquaintances quite a number of famous people attended these concerts regularly. Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Liszt, Clara Wieck Schumann, Johanna Kinkel and Heinrich Heine were frequent guests. Presenting and sometimes even conducting such concerts in a semi-public environment and receiving great praise and applause had a positive effect on Fanny as a composer and gave her the much-needed confidence to assert herself against Felix, who tried to keep his sister out of the public light for as long as he lived.

The next entry followed almost six weeks later, on Wednesday, November 16th, 1831, “The day before yesterday was my birthday, my dear Wilhelm had set up a life tree for me [as decoration to make the room look more festive] under which he had placed Sebastian, looking sweet […]. In the evening some people were at mother’s [who lived in the same house on Leipzigerstraße 3] and the news of Hegel’s death came”. (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831, the philosopher and a close family friend, died of the cholera.) Between listing family events, letters from Felix from Stuttgart and Munich, and that Sebastian is a true little angel, Fanny inserts the detached-sounding sentence, “The cholera broke out in England.”

The Cholera Cantata by Fanny Mendelssohn

On Sunday, the first of January 1832, Fanny wrote one of her longest diary entries, which began with a sad note, “Another eventful year was buried, after it was marked by the death of the dear, good Eva [a Mendelssohn who was not part of the Berlin-based Mendelssohn family]. Among all whom we lost, her death was the most painful for me. So many families are now in mourning, pain, and grief after the cholera epidemic.” Fanny is thankful to God that the worst did not come to her family. In the last paragraph she remembered, “I haven’t yet talked about father’s birthday that we celebrated at our place with my Choleramusik. It went very well, Schätzel [Pauline Decker, née Schätzel] sang beautifully.“ And again she lists many names of famous people who stopped by their place, including the Schleiermachers.

Sheila Hayman, writer, film-maker and direct descendant of Fanny Mendelssohn, proudly wrote about her great-great-great-grandmother, “With a toddler at her feet, she nursed the family through a cholera epidemic and then wrote it out in a Cholera Cantata.

Fanny always wrote music for special family occasions like birthdays and weddings as well as for extraordinary public events. She even wrote her own wedding music the night before her wedding day of October 3, 1829, as Felix had failed to keep his promise to compose the music for her.

These days, with Covid-19 rampant around the world, there are several articles and interviews in which the Cholera Cantata by Fanny Mendelssohn is mentioned. Most important is the interview with Amelia LeClair. the president of Cappella Clausura and a gifted conductor as well as a composer, which appeared in the online Arts Magazine “The Arts Fuse”, where LeClair said, “Cappella Clausura’s upcoming concerts are a great leap into a new era for us, the classical period. …  We’ll be performing two incredible cantatas by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel …”

Fanny was never allowed to play in public because her father, Abraham Mendelssohn, and after his death, her brother Felix forbade it, and both adamantly opposed her publishing her compositions. She never heard any of her compositions performed by professional musicians in a music hall – outside of her own house. However, Wilhelm knew how important music and composing was for Fanny and so he would place an empty sheet of music paper on her piano every morning, and later on during the day she would play the new piece for him.

The real breakthrough came for Fanny and other women composers with the women’s movement in the 1980s. Today we can sincerely and knowledgeably say, Fanny Mendelssohn is a composer every bit as skilled and accomplished as her brother. Studying Fanny’s work in more detail, we may even come to a much stronger position and find that she was more “modern” than he and dared to try things that Felix would have been afraid of. Not being allowed to publish her work gave her more freedom. It was not until she met Charles Gounod (1818-1893) in Rome in 1840, who adored and loved Fanny’s music and who convinced her to publish her compositions, that she decided to do just that, after the Hensel’s returned to Berlin. On March 14, 1846 Editions Bote & G. Bock in Berlin published as Opus 1 “Sechs Lieder für eine Stimme mit Begleitung des Pianoforte von Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.” (Six songs for one voice with piano accompaniment)  It was a great success. The publishers could not get enough of her works and Fanny got busy sorting and putting together her music for publication. Unfortunately she died of a stroke only a few months later, on May 14, 1847. She was only 42 at the time of her death, and we had to wait almost 150 years to begin to hear her entire oeuvre.

Today Fanny Mendelssohn is fast becoming a sought-after and frequently requested composer. At last her compositions are being played in concerts halls the world over and can be heard over the radio, the internet, and even on television. And as we deal with our own pervasive health crisis, how wonderful to be able to hear how this insightful and empathetic composer responded to the pandemic of her time.

Sources and further reading

Sheila Hayman, “A Fanny Mendelssohn masterpiece finally gets its due” (about her “Easter” Sonata for piano)

The programme booklet from Cappella Clausura’s March 2019 concerts of Fanny Mendelssohn’s cantatas, (containing texts and translations, and notes by Prof. Claire Fontijn) is here (PDF)


Performance materials for the Cholera Cantata are published by Furore Music

Suzanne Wosnitzka discusses Fanny Hensel’s Cholera Cantata here. (In German, but Google can translate 🙂   …)

American Symphony’s note written by Prof. R. Larry Todd for the concert Music and the Bible, performed on Nov 2, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

Festival der Komponistinnen: Lieber gefürchtet als brav. Ein Kommentar von Elena Witzeck
Aktualisiert am 01.05.2020, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Fanny Hensel – Tagebücher, veröffentlicht von Breitkopf & Härtel, 2002. Herausgegeben von Hans-Günter Klein und Rudolf Elvers.

Sebastian Hensel, 2 Bände, Die Familie Mendelssohn, 1729-1847: Nach Briefen und Tagebüchern.