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Features/Music

The other Mendlessohn

9 December 2019

Mendelssohn’s moving Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will receive its Australian premiere in Perth this weekend. But it isn’t by the composer you are probably expecting.

The oratorio was written by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and rediscovered late last century. Ron Banks finds out why.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the older sister of the more famous Felix, was a prolific composer. Or should that be a prolific composer of unpublished and unperformed music?

During her short life of 41 years Hensel wrote about 460 pieces of music, mostly for piano. As a child she excelled at the piano and in composition lessons. However composition skills were not considered the sort of task fit for a married woman and her career was discouraged by her father, although her brother managed to publish some of her pieces under his own name.

Her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, actively encouraged his wife, putting out manuscript paper each morning and suggesting she fill the sheet with notation by the end of the day. Hensel took up the challenge, despite the lack of success with public performance. Only small groups of friends ever heard her works.

A wood engraving of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel by her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel.

Two years into her marriage she wrote one of her biggest works, and one that remained undiscovered until late in the twentieth century. The Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel (Scenes from the Bible), is otherwise known as the Cholera Cantata, after the cholera epidemic swept Europe from 1829 until 1836. During the epidemic Hensel nursed her family and afterwards plunged into composing the oratorio. The three-part libretto is based on Biblical scenes that embrace a narrative of misery and despair, eventually turning to a joyful praise of God. It is written for eight-part choir, orchestra and soloists.

 

This long-neglected work will be performed by the University of Western Australia Choral Society on December 15. Its choral strength will be boosted to about 200 singers with the addition of the St Barnabas Choir and the Perth Undergraduate Choral Society.

The massed voices will perform the oratorio at Winthrop Hall under the direction of Sarah Mills- Menoque. The concert will conclude with Vivaldi’s Gloria and Christmas carols conducted by Kris Bowtell. Audiences are invited to picnic afterwards by the Winthrop Hall pond.

The UWA Choral Society’s final performance for the year comes after a successful tour of China in October, with about 80 singers performing concerts of classical and modern music in four cities. UWACS president Jan Kirkman said the concerts were enthusiastically received by the Chinese, with ecstatic reviews.

Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel will be performed  as part of ‘Festive Celebrations’ on December 15 at Wintrhop Hall.

Pictured top: The University of Western Australia Choral Society on tour in China.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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