The young Fanny and her brother Felix were equally gifted, but their father insisted music would be Felix’s “profession” and Fanny’s “ornament.”
Felix respected Fanny’s musicality and intellect but believed she had “neither inclination nor vocation for authorship.” He published some of her songs under his name. When Queen Victoria offered to sing her favorite one for him he confessed, red-faced, that the song was Fanny’s.
The night before Fanny’s marriage ceremony to painter Wilhelm Hensel, she wrote her own wedding music when Felix failed to deliver. Wilhelm encouraged her to keep on composing. In fifteen years she wrote 460 pieces of music, knowing the public would never hear them, including a piano trio and many solo piano pieces and songs.
From 1831 until her death in 1847, Fanny presented a Sunday concert series, Sonntagskonzerten, at the family home in Berlin, at which brother and sister played music by other composers and tried out their own compositions for a private audience. In her only known public performance in 1838, Fanny played Felix’s Piano Concerto no. 1.
During a year spent in Italy, Fanny was emboldened by the recognition she received from other musicians she met. Once back in Berlin she composed Das Jahr, a cycle of piano pieces, and published a collection of her songs without consulting Felix.
Fanny died of a stroke at the piano while rehearsing a cantata by her brother. Felix fell into a depression and died of a stroke six months later, after completing his F minor String Quartet in memory of his sister.