Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11
Fanny Mendelssohn shared many of the same advantages of education and travel as her younger brother Felix, and was every bit as obviously talented and precocious a musician as he. But while some highly gifted women did forge public careers as performers, composing – or rather, publishing compositions – was almost exclusively a male domain at the time. Felix’ own attitude seems characteristic: “From my knowledge of Fanny,” he wrote in 1837,“I would say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the music world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.”
Nonetheless, brother and sister consulted each other regularly about their music, and Felix allowed several of Fanny’s songs to be published under his name (an open secret). Fanny’s husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, was even more supportive and Fanny eventually took over the long-running Sunday musicales at the Mendelssohn home in Berlin, where her works were often performed. (Over 460 pieces survive, mostly songs and solo piano works.)
That was the scene for the premiere of her last major work, the Piano Trio in D minor, written for her younger sister Rebecka’s birthday in 1847 amid great political unrest and food riots. Fanny died a month later after suffering a stroke while rehearsing Felix’ oratorio Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a musicale; Felix followed her six months later from the same cause, which had also claimed both of their parents and their grandfather Moses Mendelssohn.
The Trio begins beings softly, but with great energy and passion and the whirling piano figures that drive much of the movement. The lyrical second theme reminds us of her talent for song, as do the middle movements. The second movement opens with a delicate piano solo, like one of her brother’s “songs without words,” and the third movement – no scherzo here – is actually labeled “Lied.” (It also features a prominent reference to an aria from Felix’ recent oratorio Elijah.) The dramatic finale also leads with a piano solo as an almost improvisatory introduction, and later recalls the lyrical second theme of the first movement.