Google Doodle marks German composer Fanny Hensel's 216th birthday

She was a talented composer, but her ambitions were limited by societal constraints on women.

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Fanny Hensel was a prolific composer at a time when men dominated the profession.


Sunday's Google Doodle pays tribute to Fanny Hensel, a German composer and pianist widely regarded as one of the most talented and prolific female composers of the 19th century.

During her lifetime, she composed more than 450 pieces of music, most of which show a deep reverence for Johann Sebastian Bach. But she struggled with the societal constraints on the roles of women at the time and was overshadowed 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 hard at work at the keyboard.

Born Fanny Zippora Mendelssohn on Nov. 14, 1805, in Hamburg, Germany, Hensel received a broad education in languages, literature, sciences and art. Her first piano instruction came at a young age from her mother and, around the age of 13, she performed all 24 preludes to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory.

Her piano talents equaled, if not surpassed, that of her brother, but her aspirations to be a performer and composer were hampered by society's prevailing views on the role of women. This harsh reality was reinforced to Hensel in an 1820 letter from her father, who wrote that while music will perhaps become Felix's profession, "for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing."

She married in 1829 and though her performances were largely limited to private occasions, Hensel continued to compose music, producing hundreds of keyboard pieces, chamber music and chorale songs, some of which were published under her brother's name.

Her Easter Sonata, written in 1829 and unpublished in her lifetime, was misattributed to her brother in 1970 before researchers determined in 2010 that Hensel was the work's true author.

She finally decided to publish her music under her own name in 1846, paving the way for women to be accepted into the traditionally male-dominated music profession. She died of a stroke the next year at the age of 41.

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