String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80 (1847)
Performed on August 2, 2021
Inferring a deceased composer’s state of mind and seeking correspondences in their musical output, however tempting it may be, risks trafficking in superficial assumptions and misleading analyses. But Felix Mendelssohn’s final string quartet—his final major work—appears to present a robust case of compositional autobiography. In May 1847, Mendelssohn returned to Germany from touring in Great Britain to learn that his beloved sister and closest confidante, Fanny Hensel, had died two days earlier from a series of strokes. Felix reportedly screamed and collapsed to the ground in devastation: “I can’t even think about work, indeed about music, without feeling the greatest emptiness and desert in my head and in my heart,” he reflected.
Fanny, it is well established, was nothing less than Felix’s musical and intellectual peer. Patriarchal social expectations, imposed most brutally by their father and tamely seconded by her brother, compelled her to prioritize a family-oriented lifestyle while Felix was encouraged to pursue his professional trajectory in music. Fanny never ceased composing, however, and her bold resolution in 1846 to begin publishing her compositions despite her brother’s paternalistic reservations adds to the poignance of her premature death the following year.
In a desperate attempt to soothe his grief, Felix traveled to Interlaken, Switzerland for the summer, “in the hope that later I may feel like working, and enjoy it,” he wrote to their younger sister, Rebecka. While there, Felix succeeded in producing his string quartet—a work of torrential agitation relenting only briefly for oases of tenderness—although it’s tough to say whether he managed to “enjoy it.” Whatever solace he found was short-lived: when he traveled to Berlin that September, the sight of Fanny’s music room and grave unleashed a nervous breakdown that left him unable to fulfill the concert engagements that had brought him there. One month later, he experienced his own series of strokes. When he died in early November 1847, he was buried by his sister’s side.
Note by Peter Asimov.