Fanny Mendelssohn (1799 - 1847) began composing Jahr in August of 1841 as a twelve-part piano suite based on the months of the year. In 1846 she wrote to her brother Felix Mendelssohn to inform him that -- against the strict wishes of the Mendelssohn family -- she was beginning to publish her own music. In 1847 her first favorable musical reviews were eclipsed by her untimely death on May 14. Grief-stricken, her brother died just six months later, but before his own passing he carried out her wishes by arranging for the publication of several of her songs and piano pieces.
Jahr constitutes in effect a musical diary of the year she and her family (Hensil) spent in Rome. In many ways it is more forward-looking and original than her brother's work, closer to that of Liszt or Robert Schumann. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the unheralded piano suites of the nineteenth century. It has now been recorded, and is deserving of inclusion in the standard piano repertoire.
January is an overture. It is somber and opens in a dark mood. It would seem that this January serves as a reminiscence of the events that would inspire subsequent movements. A quotation from the May movement leads into a concluding section, and then directly into the next movement. February is a musical description of the Roman Carnival. This scherzo has a lilting character, a perpetual motion that doesn't stop until low octaves herald a fade out. March is based on the Lutheran chorale Christ ist erstanden. April portrays action and emotions, a time when the family was leaving Rome, but this was also a time for reflection on the whole trip. Fanny wrote in her diary at this time, "It will cost us a hard struggle to leave Rome." May was the actual month of departure. In June, travel took a long time, and there were frequent stops on the way. Is this a stop in Venice? It is a nocturne which develops into a gondolier song with virtuoso figurations in the accompaniment. July is a depressed movement with dark, threatening tremolos in the bass. Fanny's diary expresses low spirits. She hoped that their arrival home would restore her usual good spirits. If the suite is a true musical diary of her year, then returning home in August did restore Fanny's good mood. This is a lively march. September is a simple picture, with a wave-like figuration in the melody's accompaniment. October is a bright and enthusiastic piece in a march rhythm. Here Fanny is looking back at the beginning of the trip. In November, the two part structure and the moods of the piece are reflected in the two tempo markings. "Mesto" meaning "sadly" while the literal meaning of the word "Allegro" is "Joyfully." The second part springs into action, corresponding with the Hensel's departure from Venice for Rome in November of 1839. In December, not only the arrival in Rome but the memories Christmas evoked of many past family celebrations are evoked when Fanny introduces the Bach Christmas chorale Von Himmel hoch da komm ich hier. The postlude is a beautifully conceived movement that serves to put the seal and summation on the entire suite, the hallmark of a composer with confident awareness of the overall form and emotional meaning of the work. It is a Chorale on Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year is Passed). It is a fond look backward.