Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Self Criticism, Fanny Hensel Style

I came across this self-deprecating letter from the 29-year-old Fanny Hensel to her brother Felix, who had written to her about her 1834 String Quartet. His criticisms mostly involved her unorthodox use of form (it is indeed unorthodox, the same way that Beethoven's later Quartets, which she studied well, were unorthodox). She took the opportunity to express her deepest feelings of inadequacy to her brother on February 17, 1835.

Here it is in German:
Ich habe nachgedacht, wie ich, eigentlich gar nicht excentrische oder hypersentimentale Person zu der weichlichen Schreibart komme? Ich glaube es kommt daher, daß wir grade mit Beethovens letzter Zeit jung waren, u. dessen Art u. Weise wir billig, sehr in uns aufgenommen haben. Sie ist doch gar zu rührend u. eindringlich. Du hast Dich durchgelebt u. durchgeschrieben, u. ich bin drin stecken geblieben, aber ohne die Kraft durch die die Weichheit allein bestehn kann u. soll. Daher glaub ich auch, hast Du nicht den rechten Punkt über mich getroffen oder ausgesprochen. Es ist nicht sowohl die Schreibart an der es fehlt, als ein gewisses Lebensprinzip, u. diesem Mangel zufolge sterben meine längern Sachen in ihrer Jugend an Altersschwäche, es fehlt mir die Kraft, die Gedanken gehörig festzuhalten, ihnen die nöthige Consistenz zu geben. Daher gelingen mir am besten Lieder, wozu nur allenfalls ein hübscher Einfall ohne viele Kraft der Durchführung gehört.
Here's an English translation (taken from a recording by the Merel Quartet)
I have thought about how I--actually not at all an eccentric or hypersentimental person--have adopted such a tender-minded way of writing. I believe that it results from the fact that we were young precisely at the end of Beethoven's time, and willingly and deeply absorbed his way of doing things. It is altogether too moving and affecting. You have lived through it and progressed beyond it in your composing and I have remained stuck in it, but without the strength that is necessary to sustain that tenderness. For this reason, I also believe that you have not hit upon or voiced the crucial point about me. It is not so much the way of composing that is the problem as it is a certain life principle, and as a result of this shortcoming, my longer things die of decrepitude while still in their youth; I lack the strength to sustain my ideas properly and give them the necessary consistency. For this reason, I have my greatest successes with songs, for which on a pretty inspiration without much tenacity is needed.
Here's a FANTASTIC website with Hensel's collected and musically-illustrated correspondence.

We all go through periods of self doubt, and many women tend to fall into the habit of self deprecation. It seems to be more of a cultural habit than a personal habit. Fanny Hensel did have the support of her family, but only to a point, because they restricted her musical activities to her home. She was therefore not able to interact in the active post-Beethoven musical world that she felt she needed in order to overcome her perceived inability to sustain her musical ideas. The more I hear of her music, the more tragic her situation becomes.

I'm wracking my brain trying to think of a male composer of Hensel's ability who was (or is) as self deprecating as she was. The only self deprecating composers that come to mind are women.


David Wolfson said...

Does it count if you're self-deprecating inside your own head but, trying to absorb all our era's lessons about self-promotion, never admit it in public?

Elaine Fine said...

Simply by comparing yourself to Hensel, you do not pass the self-deprecation test!