Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn wants to shed light on a brilliant woman who remained on the sidelines of history for far too long, Fanny Mendelssohn.
At the beginning of Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn, the narrator tells us that Fanny’s “story had been overshadowed by her brother and overlooked by the male-dominated musical world.” This is the best way to explain the drive behind making this documentary in the first place, saving this composer from the oblivion of history she would have easily fallen into given the little recognition she was afforded at the time. The film shines a light on the harsh reality Fanny Mendelssohn had to face during her lifetime and on the lack of recognition she – and many other women composers – still has to this day in the musical world.
Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn is a documentary that follows Fanny Mendelssohn’s life through her music and letters. During her lifetime and for more than a century, not much was known about Felix’s older sister until now. The oldest daughter of a distinguished family, Fanny received a thorough musical education but was not able to travel for her studies, perform publicly, nor publish her music under her name, unlike her younger brother Felix who would grow to become one of the most famous pianist and composers of the early Romantic period. While Fanny was not able to share her innermost feelings and thoughts publicly during her life, this documentary attempts to finally tell Fanny’s story through her own words, and musical scores.
Much of the first half of the film is overpowered by the narrator. Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn stays away from an all-knowing voice-of-God narrator, opting instead for a narrator that has a personal connection to the subject of the documentary as the unbodied voice reveals that Fanny was her great-great-great-grandmother, which prompted her to start the project we are about to see. The issue with the narrator is that it falls into the trap of telling us too much but showing us too little, relying on the narration to convey key historical and contextual information about Fanny’s life. It feels too much like a didactic product aimed to teach something to the audience rather than entertain us, something that a documentary should still strive to accomplish.
I think Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn would have benefitted from using re-enactment to truly emphasise Fanny’s love for music and the struggles she faced during her life due to her gender in a time when women were not allowed to play any other instrument except the piano, let alone publish their own work. This is conveyed in the documentary through the voiceover and the presence of a letter Fanny received from her father, telling her music would be but an ornament in her life. But it somehow falls flat as we do not witness Fanny experiencing this nor the internal dilemma she must have faced when trying to appease to her family’s wishes but still follow her passion for music.
The strongest parts of the documentary are when it focuses on Fanny’s music through interviews with people who studied her work, found her lost sonatas, and performed it in public. As her music is all we have of Fanny, along with the letters to her brother, it seems fitting that her story would be told through her compositions, the history of which is being explored throughout the documentary. The interviews also work really well in Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn as they show the impact that Fanny’s music still has to this day on people who desperately want Fanny to see her place granted in classical musical history.
Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn had the strenuous task of saving this brilliant woman from being forgotten. As the film informs us at the end, many of Fanny’s works have still not been performed or published, which inevitably begs the question of when women composers will finally be accepted in the musical world and allowed to practice their art. However, while its aim may be noble, this documentary is not for everyone. Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn seems to speak to a target audience that already has a pre-existing knowledge of musical history of the early Romantic period at the very least, if not of Felix Mendelssohn’s importance and work as well.
Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn will be released in UK cinemas on 27 October, 2023.