Such Devoted Sisters
August 24, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
There is a saying that goes, “behind every man is a great woman.” I think the common interpretation is that the woman is a wife, whose unswerving support and dedication (and likely a greater attention to the more mundane aspects of life) allows her husband to pursue his art or business without interruption. But that woman might be a loving mother, who believes in her son and encourages him to do great things. Well, of course we know that every successful person—woman or man—has someone who gave helped or provided support along the way. Our first thought often goes to parents or spouses, but what about siblings? As the younger of two daughters, I can say that an older sister can be a great source of support. I was not a child prodigy, but I did learn a lot from my sister. In fact, I think it’s no surprise that two of the greatest child prodigies the musical world has ever known were both the younger brothers of talented older sisters. W.A. Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn each had a musically talented older sister whose growth as a composer and performer almost certainly had a profound effect on her brother’s musical development.
Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was born in 1751, five years before her famous brother. Like Wolfgang, Nannerl learned music at her father’s knee. Leopold taught her piano, which she excelled at, and when she was twelve, Leopold and Nannerl set out on a tour through Europe. By all reports her mastery of difficult repertoire was stunning. She played accurately and cleanly and with great flair. As she got older, her success waned, and by the time she was eighteen, she no longer performed in public. Part of the decline in Nannerl’s popularity was her brother’s meteoric rise. Leopold must have also believed that Wolfgang was going to be the famous musician and composer, not just because he had the greater talent but because he was a man. It was expected for women at the time to get married and raise a family rather than focus on career.
Nannerl appears not to have been embittered by this, and she always had the greatest respect for her brother. He wrote pieces for her, including a Divertimento. Before she had a family of her own, she attended the premieres of Mozart’s pieces, and indeed, she composed music as well. Her brother spoke of these compositions very favorably, although none of them survives. After Wolfgang Mozart married, Nannerl and Wolfgang drifted apart. They didn’t write much in the 1780s, and it was only after her brother’s death that Nannerl learned with regret of the challenging financial straits he faced in his final years. She met his son Franz Xaver Mozart in 1821. After reading biographies of Wolfgang, Nannerl realized how much she missed her brother, with whom she had once been so close. In 1801, Nannerl’s husband passed away, and she began working as a piano teacher, finally using her great musical gifts a decade after her brother’s early death. She was a popular teacher, and many of her students were attracted by her familial relationship with the great Wolfgang, but they soon learned that she was a great musician in her own right.
Fanny Mendelssohn, born in 1805, four years before Felix, received her first music lessons from her mother. Like Nannerl, she showed an early talent for the piano. At the age of just thirteen, she was playing J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. She studied music very seriously for years, but her focus shifted in her early twenties with her marriage (although she never stopped playing entirely). Fanny was also a composer, but in the nineteenth century, women composers were still an extreme rarity. Those who did publish put out smaller, more intimate genres like songs and piano sonatas. For some reason, it was more acceptable for a woman to write those miniature pieces. Although there were no written rules on the subject, a woman writing a symphony or a large-scale concerto probably would have seemed…improper. Fanny did write some bigger pieces, including oratorios and cantatas, but they remained unpublished while she was alive and for decades afterwards as well. While she was alive, though, some of her pieces were published under Felix's name.
Fanny and Felix stayed close their entire lives. In fact she passed away while rehearsing some of his music for the informal series of Sunday concerts she was in charge of organizing. Felix was devastated at the loss of his sister, who was just in her early 40s. He composed a string quartet for her memory, and likely would have done more in her honor had his own life not been cut short a mere six months later. He was thirty-eight.
In the realm of influence, we often see parents as the first source of encouragement or discouragement. Some parents forbid their children to study composition, preferring them to become doctors or lawyers. Some parents push their children obsessively, seeking vicarious success through their progeny. We don’t think very much about the effect siblings have on their musical brothers and sisters. In the case of Fanny and Nannerl, society paid less attention to them in favor of their brothers, especially Nannerl. As composers, they didn’t have a chance to be successful, but in both situations, their brothers knew of their potential, and had benefitted greatly from their talent. Wolfgang and Felix encouraged and respected their sisters’ musical work, and in turn, they learned much from their older siblings during their formative years.
The bond between siblings is often very strong. There is something quite unique about knowing someone from the time you are born and growing up in the same house with him or her. Younger siblings tag along with their older brothers and sisters, hoping for knowledge and help. Older siblings may take an almost parental role in the lives of their “little” brothers and sisters. In the case of musicians, the younger children try to advance quickly to catch up and keep up with the older ones. There must have been an element of that in both the Mozart and the Mendelssohn homes. Fanny and Nannerl helped their brothers shine, and it is sad to think we will never know the extent of their influence.