Matthew Lewis talks about the St. George's Choral Society November 20 Mendelssohn concert
by Laura Daly for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 6, 2022

St. George's Choral Society will be performing works of both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn on November 20 at 3 PM at St. George's Church, 4 Rutherford Place, New York, NY. On the program: Felix's Hör' mein Bitten, Op. post; Wie der Hirsch schreit, Op. 42; Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt, WoO 28; Richte mich, Gott, Op. 78, No. 2; and Fanny's Gartenlieder, Opus 3 (selections). Kendra Berentsen will be the soprano soloist.

First, a quick history for our readers. Fanny was Felix's older sister. Their mutual love of music was a strong bond between them. They both studied piano and composition under Carl Friedrich Zelter, an eminent German composer and teacher. Zelter's letters indicate that he favored Fanny's musical prowess over Felix's. Alas, women at that time were not expected to pursue a professional career. While Fanny's talents were evident to all, her father wrote to her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing." As for Felix, he was privately supportive of her as a musician and composer but did not believe she should publish her works. He wrote to his mother, "From my knowledge of Fanny I should 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 musical 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." Felix did see that Fanny's work would be performed, but by publishing them under his name. He did publicly admit her authorship once during a performance of Italien for Queen Victoria, who said it was one of her favorites.

Fanny finally did publish a collection of songs in 1846, a year before her death. She composed many works in the form "Songs Without Words," a genre which Felix later became famous for. Some musicologists now believe that Fanny pioneered this music form.

Matthew Lewis, artistic director for the group, shares his insights on both composers and the program.

Laura Daly: Matthew, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to enlighten our readers about this concert's program. Fanny's works are rarely performed. Why did you decide to feature both siblings for your fall concert?

Matthew Lewis: Well, I've known about Fanny Hensel's songs for some time and find them amazing, including her unaccompanied songs (Lieder) for choir -- stunning works! And I love her Overture in C for orchestra. I love Felix Mendelssohn's music, and started putting together a program of his works, when it occurred to me that I could include pieces by his sister. Thus, the program we are offering on November 20.

LD: While both Felix and Fanny influenced each other, what would you say are the key differences between them? How are these differences highlighted in the works you selected for your fall concert?

ML: I don't know if I'm enough of a musicologist to speak accurately about the similarities and differences of their composition style, but there are identifiable aspects of each composer. Things were different for composers in those days, making the prominence of a woman composer a near impossibility. I've heard that this is the reason Felix took ownership of some of her pieces - to bring them to the public. Otherwise, people may not have given these pieces much of a chance. Both siblings received the best education. Their parents had the means to provide the best teachers for them. Felix was an accomplished painter. One of his paintings can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; this painting was even the inspiration for our graphics for this program.

LD: Both Fanny and Felix composed works in the form of "Songs Without Words." Can you explain what this term means?

ML: A "Song Without Words" is simply a piano piece that is very melodic -- almost like a song for voice, except there is no text. There is a vocal line, just no poetry to go with it. Often these pieces are programmatic (Hunting Song, Venetian Boat Song and so on). It takes a lot of imagination to do this as a composer!

LD: Felix's Hör' mein Bitten, along with other of his major works, premiered in London. Why was England such a key place for him?

ML: I'm not sure, but I do know he had a personal friendship with the King and Queen of England, and often met them and played for them. He even played the organ for them. And I believe Elijah was premiered in England, sung in English, as was the case for Hear My Prayer, or Hör' mein Bitten.

LD: The soprano soloist for your concert is Kendra Berentsen. Can you tell us something about her?

ML: I looked for a soprano who would have a beautiful voice along with the artistry and intellectual savvy to take on these works. They are not opera -- they require a different type of sensitivity. I believe Kendra is perfect for these pieces! And she's got an impressive career happening at the moment.

LD: Is there anything else you would like your readers to know about your November 20 concert?

ML: This program includes some of my favorite pieces. Felix Mendelssohn's Cantata based on Psalm 42 is a masterpiece -- I don't know why it isn't done more often! It is stunningly beautiful, with great contrasts within. And Hör' mein Bitten is a piece I've known and performed for years, especially at church. Both feature a soprano soloist, and the orchestration is magical. Addditionally, Fanny Hensel's Gartenlieder are delightful, like a breath of fresh air. And, the choir seems to be loving the rehearsal process. I'm very excited about this program!

LD: Matthew, thank you so much!


For more information about the November 20 St. George's Choral Society concert, please visit stgeorgeschoralsociety.org.

Laura Daly is manager of marketing and artist relations for the St. George's Choral Society.