Fanny Hensel (1805–1847) was an extraordinary musician and astute observer of European culture. Previously she was known mainly as the granddaughter of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, yet Hensel is now recognized as the leading woman composer of the nineteenth century. She produced well over four hundred compositions and excelled in short, lyrical piano pieces and songs of epigrammatic intensity, but the expressive range of her art also accommodated challenging virtuoso piano and chamber works, orchestral music, and cantatas written in imitation of J. S. Bach. Her gender and position in society restricted her from opportunities afforded her brother, however, who himself quickly rose to an international career of the first rank.
Hensel's own sphere of influence revolved around her Berlin residence, where she directed concerts that attracted such celebrities as Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, Clara Novello, and her brother Felix. In this semi-public space, shared with exclusive audiences drawn from the elite of Berlin society, Hensel found her own voice as pianist, conductor and composer. For much of her life, she composed for her own pleasure, and her brother ranked her songs among the very best examples of the genre. Felix silently incorporated several of the songs into his own early publications, while a few other songs were published anonymously. Hensel began releasing her works under her own name in 1847, only to die of a stroke as the first reviews of her music began to appear.
Tragically, the vast majority of her music was forgotten for a century and a half before its recent rediscovery. Renowned Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd now offers a compelling, full account of Hensel's life and music, her extraordinary relationship with her brother, her position in one of Berlin's most eminent families, and her courageous struggle to define her own public voice as a composer.