In 2010, Angela Mace Christian traveled to Paris on a hunch. Then a graduate student at Duke University, she made the trip to study a 19th-century manuscript of the Easter Sonata—an ambitious piece credited to the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. But Christian suspected that this attribution was wrong. After analyzing the manuscript and following a “documentary trail” of letters and diaries, she concluded that the author of the Easter Sonata was not Felix, but his beloved older sister, Fanny.
Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, the Easter Sonata premiered under Fanny’s name for the first time, reports Mark Savage for the BBC. Pianist Sofya Gulyak performed the piece at the Royal College of Music in London. Long obscured by the shadow of her brother’s legacy, Fanny has now emerged into the spotlight.
Born in 1805, Fanny was a virtuosic, prolific, and vastly underappreciated pianist. Like her brother, she began to display remarkable musical talents as a young child, mastering Bach’s thorny Well-Tempered Clavier by the age of 14. Felix and Fanny were very close. “They had all the same teachers as kids growing up, so their styles actually merged,” says Christian, now an assistant professor of music history at Colorado State University, in an interview with Smithsonian.com. “They knew each other's work, note by note, before it ever hit paper.”
Their talents, however, were not fostered with equal enthusiasm. While Fanny’s father encouraged his daughter to perform in the family home, he believed it would be indecent for a woman of her status to pursue any kind of career. “[The Mendelssohn family was] very high class, and a high class woman did not appear publicly as a professional,”Christian explains. “Publicity was associated with loose morals and possibly amoral behavior.”
Though Fanny’s professional aspirations fizzled, she became a dynamic fixture of Berlin’s music culture in the early 19th century. After her marriage to Wilhelm Hensel in 1829, Fanny began to host a private concert series, complete with choirs and instrumentalists. These concerts gave her an opportunity to perform her own works—she composed about 500 of them during her lifetime, according to the Encylopedia Britannica.
But Fanny rarely published her compositions. On one occasion, she allowed Felix, who reportedly admitted that his sister was the better pianist, to include six of her songs in his Opus 8 and Opus 9. The works appeared under his name, which led to a rather awkward encounter with the British monarch. “When Felix visited Queen Victoria, she sang one of Fanny’s songs,” Christian says, because the queen thought it was by him.
The Easter Sonata was Fanny’s second piano sonata, composed when she was just 23. Fanny mentioned the work in letters to her family and friends, but the Easter Sonata did not receive public recognition during her lifetime, according to Hannah Furness of the Independent. It is not clear when the work was first ascribed to Felix; the earliest evidence of the mistaken attribution is a 1972 recording of the Easter Sonata, which names Felix as the composer.
For decades, scholars believed that the original manuscript was lost. But in 2010, Christian was able to trace it to a private archive in France. When she had the opportunity to examine the manuscript in person, her suspicions about its authorship were confirmed.
“I was able to see that it was in [Fanny’s] handwriting,” Christian says. The manuscript also contained page numbers that were missing from a different manuscript known to have been authored by Fanny. Taken together, Christian says, these were “major factors pointing to the identification that [the Easter Sonata] was hers.”
The discovery of the Easter Sonata further cements Fanny as a masterful composer in her own right. The piece is grand and sweeping, shaped by the influences of Beethoven and Bach. Its fourth and final movement features a rumbling tremolo, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection, which is said to have caused an earthquake.
“I view [the Easter Sonata] as sort of a finishing piece for her education,” Christian explains. “It's very ambitious, it’s very tightly handled. It reflects the high level of playing that she was at, at that point.”
In 1846, when she was 41-years-old, Fanny was approached by publishers who were interested in disseminating her work. By then, Fanny felt ready to defy the expectations of her father and brothers, and she agreed to release her compositions. Sadly, she died of a stroke in 1847, before the majority of her work could be published. Felix died less than six months later. Many experts believe that his death was caused by heartbreak over the loss of his sister.
Though Fanny did not fully realize her creative ambitions during her short life, it would be wrong to see her as a tragic figure. “She was just a remarkable woman,” Christian says. “She really tried to do her best within the social constraints of her time.” With the London premiere of the Easter Sonata, her “lost” work will be celebrated before a public audience—a milestone that is so well-deserved, so long overdue.