Sunday’s Google Doodle pays homage to Fanny Hensel, a German composer and pianist widely regarded as one of the most talented and prolific composers of the 19th century.
During her lifetime, she composed over 450 pieces of music, most of which show a deep respect for Johann Sebastian Bach. But she struggled with societal constraints on women’s roles at the time and was eclipsed by her more famous brother, composer Felix Mendelssohn. To honor her contribution to music, Google celebrated Hensel’s 216th birthday on Sunday with an animated Doodle showing her at work on the keyboard.
Born Fanny Zippora Mendelssohn on November 14, 1805 in Hamburg, Germany, Hensel received extensive training in languages, literature, science, and the arts. Her first piano instruction came from her mother at a very young age, and around the age of 13 she performed from memory the 24 preludes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Her talents as a pianist equaled, if not surpassed, those of her brother, but her aspirations to be a performer and composer were hampered by mainstream views in society about the role of women. This harsh reality was reinforced to Hensel in an 1820 letter from his father, who wrote that while music might become Felix’s profession, “for you it can and should only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and your action “.
She married in 1829 and although her performances were largely limited to private occasions, Hensel continued to compose music, producing hundreds of keyboard pieces, chamber music and choral songs, some of which were published under the name of his brother.
His Easter Sonata, written in 1829 and unpublished during his lifetime, was wrongly attributed to his brother in 1970 before researchers determined in 2010 that Hensel was the true author of the work.
She eventually decided to publish her music under her own name in 1846, paving the way for the acceptance of women into the traditionally male-dominated musical profession. She died of a stroke the following year at the age of 41.