Music Now is an informal forum series for Brown’s community of composers and music scholars. This week’s guest is Laura Stokes, Brown University Performing Arts Librarian. Music Now talks are free and open to the public.
About this Talk, “Fanny Hensel’s Lied ‘Der Fürst vom Berge’ in Light of Contemporary European Politics”
In 1839–1840, the composer Fanny Hensel, her artist husband Wilhelm, and their son Sebastian traveled to Italy. As a memoir of their time in Italy, Fanny and Wilhelm created the Reise-Album, a collaborative compilation of artwork, compositions, and texts. The Lied “Der Fürst vom Berge,” with music by Fanny and text and pencil vignette by Wilhelm, is one of the musical works in this album. The text and music present an ambiguous picture of a princely ruler: one who glories in his power and makes seemingly arbitrary decisions about who among his subjects will meet with happiness and honors, or punishment and disgrace. Although the martial rhythms of the central motif suggest the monarch’s dignity, Hensel’s harmonic language, unstable hypermeter, and fading ending indicate capriciousness and precariousness rather than certainty and security.
The chronology of the trip and the mountain motifs in the drawing indicate that this work was likely composed during, or in remembrance of, the Hensels’ travel in the Alps during their return to Berlin in 1840. Fanny’s journal entries from that time offer clues to a potential interpretation of this Lied. She discusses two contemporary political figures: the new king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had reinstated the standing of the disgraced scholars known as the Göttingen Seven, and, in a different vein, the nobleman and revolutionary Federico Confalonieri, whom the Hensels had met in Bellinzona, Switzerland, and who had been exiled from his native Italy. The Hensels’ Lied thus offers insights into the complex politics of the time, as well as into the nature of the artistic collaboration between husband and wife.
About Laura Stokes
Laura K. T. Stokes is the Performing Arts Librarian at Brown University, where she has also been a Lecturer in Music. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Indiana University. Her scholarly work examines music and cultural politics in the nineteenth century, including music for public ritual, opera, sacred music, gender and composition, and music publishing history. Her current projects are on the composers Fanny Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, as well as music and politics, historiography, and nineteenth-century medievalism. From 2012–2018, she was an Assistant Editor of the journal Notes.