Fanny Mendelssohn spent her short life eclipsed by the fame of her younger brother (and fellow composer) Felix. But Fanny got her long overdue day in the sun this month, when her “Easter Sonata,” incorrectly attributed to Felix, was finally performed under her name in London.
Separated by just three years, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were nearly inseparable. Both showed signs of prodigious musical talent as children, and they studied composition together, learning from Berlin’s top instructors. Felix is believed to have made his public debut before he turned 10, and was writing works for strings and piano, including the “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by his early teens.
Fanny, meanwhile, was definitely keeping pace with her kid brother. By the age of 14 she’d memorized all 48 of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and had begun composing her own work as well. In fact, several of the Mendelssohn children’s teachers considered Fanny the more naturally talented of the two—a feeling echoed by their own father.
But despite the cultured, worldly circles the Mendelssohns moved in, and her father’s belief in her skills, it was Felix who was pushed to the forefront, while the idea of Fanny pursuing a professional musical career seemed a non-starter. In the early 19th century it simply wouldn’t do for a woman of her status to publish under her own name, let alone perform in public.
Felix soon hit the road on a tour of Europe, where he would visit the capitals of music and dazzle newfound fans with both his composing and conducting skills. By his mid-20s, he was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the premiere composers of the Romantic Age.
Fanny remained at home. But despite her father’s misgivings, she never abandoned her love of music. In fact, she became one of Berlin’s most popular musical benefactors, establishing a salon that drew from the city’s elite. These private concerts also gave Fanny a vehicle to perform her own compositions, and oh, did she have more than a few to share.
See, Fanny had found at least one man in her life who actively encouraged her musical dreams. Her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel, would reportedly leave her with a blank piece of musical paper each day, which he hoped would be filled with notations by the time he’d returned home. And Fanny obliged. In all, she would compose nearly 500 works before her untimely death at age 41. Felix, by all account grief-stricken at his sister’s passing, died just six months later.
Among those works were six pieces that Felix agreed to publish—but under his name. He may have regretted assisting his sister, though, when Britain’s Queen Victoria (unaware of its true authorship) named one of Fanny’s songs as her favorite. Another, remarkable work of Fanny’s never saw the light of day in her lifetime—and remained hidden for nearly 140 years. Titled the “Easter Sonata,” it was one of her earlier works, written when she was just 22 or 23. Little was known about the work until the original manuscript surfaced in a French bookstore in 1970. The buyer noticed the F. Mendelssohn signature, and announced to the world the discovery of a long-lost Felix Mendelssohn masterpiece.
It would take another four decades, and a lot of detective work, to uncover the truth. In 2010, after hearing a recording of the work, then-graduate student Angela Mace Christian (who’d been studying Fanny’s personal diaries and musical albums), developed a hunch that all was not what it seemed with the sonata. She contacted the owner, who reluctantly allowed her to view the manuscript. Christian was able to match Fanny’s handwriting and musical notation with that on the composition, and was able to show that the individually-numbered pages were the ones known to be missing from her music album.
Fanny’s family had also been working hard to ensure her musical genius was recognized. Her great-great-granddaughter, filmmaker Sheila Hayman, is working on a documentary on the remarkable find. And she hopes that this is just the beginning of Fanny Renaissance, telling the Telegraph that, “the continuing quest to locate the manuscript and produce a definitive edition, have given us a way to help bring Fanny back to public attention, give her due recognition and with luck, bring more of her unpublished music into the world. ”
Hyman was also instrumental in securing the first public performance of the piece under Fanny’s name, which took place on March 8, International Women’s Day, and was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.