On Tuesday, we spoke with cellist Julia Bruskin about the Claremont Trio’s September 7 performance of the “Easter” sonata, recently reattributed from Felix Mendelssohn to his sister, Fanny Hensel, thanks to new research at Duke. Today, we speak with the academic sleuth behind the discovery, Duke PhD candidate Angela Mace, the first person to examine the original manuscript of the sonata since the 1970s. Mace came to Duke to work on her dissertation with Prof. R. Larry Todd, a top Mendelssohn scholar, who first suggested that she explore the question around the “Easter” sonata after broaching it in his book on Fanny Hensel. Now Mace walks us through the hunt led her through Oxford, Berlin, and Paris in search of the elusive manuscript, the key to resolving the mystery.
The Thread: How did the “Easter” sonata come to be misattributed?
Angela Mace: Gender, social class, and money were all potential factors, but how it really happened is hazy. Serious scholarship on Fanny Hensel didn’t get underway until the ‘80s and ‘90s because her materials weren’t widely available. There were political problems in Germany, of course, during the Cold War, and because she was a woman composer, sometimes her material was simply left in personal vaults, and wasn’t acquired at the Mendelssohn archive in Berlin until the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Fanny Hensel (then Fanny Mendelssohn, she wasn’t married yet) wrote several letters about this sonata that refer to it as “hers,” but [musicologist] Roger Fiske hypothesized that she called it “her” sonata because Felix had given it to her as a present. They did give each other musical gifts, so it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, although while we knew Felix had given her birthday and Christmas presents, we had never known him to give her an Easter present. It was also a big sonata, and Fanny Mendelssohn didn’t write many big things. And purely hypothetically, if you have a manuscript that you know is Mendelssohn and it isn’t signed, you can sell that manuscript as Felix’s and get a lot more money for it.
How did Fanny Hensel’s letters play into the process of discovery?
Marcia Citron, a professor at Rice University, went to Berlin in the ‘80s, when feminism was on the rise, trying to see what was in this relatively unknown female composer’s work. She was able to access the letters, which the archive director had been generally reluctant to let people see due to chauvinistic attitudes about Fanny Hensel. She started publishing them. Interest in Felix, which had been on the downturn during the rise of modernism, started to grow again, and that also raised in interest in Fanny because she’s there with Felix on basically every page.
The letters show that Fanny Hensel had a very strong personality of her own—a very dry wit, very intelligent and politically aware. Her diaries reveal this as well. And that she and Felix corresponded regularly about their music, especially after he left Berlin in 1829 and went on his grand tour as a young, rich European man. We see them talking about music, exchanging critiques.
The first documentary reference to the “Easter” sonata is from April 10, 1829. Felix departs for London and Fanny reports in her diary that she played her “Easter” sonata. This is why scholars originally dated the piece to 1829. Then, in August, Felix Mendelssohn and his friend Carl Klingemann are on a walking tour of Scotland and end up in Liverpool, where they board a ship to New York that has a mahogany piano where Mendelssohn plays the “Easter” sonata. Klingemann related this to the family in a letter, talking about how dock workers were singing mournful tunes in A minor near them. Fanny writes back and says how strange it is to imagine her “Easter” sonata being played in this strange place.
So by the time you came to this story, did scholars already believe that Fanny Hensel was the “Easter” sonata’s author?
Most scholars did, but there was no way to prove it without the original manuscript, which was in private hands. So I put the letters side by side and went into the catalogs and started following clues. There was a bound collection of Fanny Hensel’s works in the archive in Berlin that was missing pages 89 to 110—perhaps a sonata. Cataloger Renate Hellwig-Unruh had said maybe that was Easter sonata. I went and looked at it and you can see the pages are missing, but there’s no physical evidence of them having been cut out. They had been taken out and the book had been rebound. So the trail went cold.A French LP recording of the “Easter” sonata had been made in the ‘70s, but wasn’t really known in the U.S. I heard it on a burned CD of the LP playing too fast, but then discovered that UNC-Chapel Hill had the LP in their collection. The trail ran cold there as well because the Parisian pianist, Eric Heidsieck, hadn’t had any academic appointments in some time and I just couldn’t contact him. I knew that John Supko had his Fulbright in Paris, so I mentioned Heidsieck to him and the name sounded familiar. He turned out to be a friend of a friend of a friend of Heidsieck’s son, and so I was able to write him a letter.
He was thrilled to hear from me and I arranged to visit him in May 2010. I hoped he would have a copy of the manuscript, but he actually got me permission to see the original, which I examined for about 45 minutes in this dusty little office while Eric ran cover for me, chatting with the owner. It’s possible he was interested in finally letting a scholar look at it because he was considering putting it on the market, but it hasn’t surfaced at any auctions since then.
I saw right away that it was Fanny’s handwriting, which is very different than Felix’s, and that it was dated a year earlier than scholars had thought, 1828. This made more sense for Fanny than 1829, when she was writing a song cycle, piano pieces, lieder—there’s really no room for a four-movement major sonata, but there is a big gap in 1828. I could also see she had written her own title on there, Ostersonate, so we knew that it was actually the work’s title rather than just an indication of when it was written. And it had the missing page numbers on it, so it had been in that collection of her works that I had seen in Berlin.
Is it possible there are other Fanny Hensel pieces misattributed to her brother?
That’s what I asked Larry Todd in my first semester with him, and I get asked it all the time now. Larry answered me very assuredly, no. Because they have very distinctive personal styles when you get underneath the surfaces. Felix was writing for a publishing audience, he revised things four or five times, so they have a certain polish that Fanny Hensel’s music doesn’t have. She didn’t start publishing until the last two years of her life, so we never really got to see how she would have adapted to that.
Angela Mace’s research is the topic of a daylong symposium at Duke on September 7, followed by the Claremont Trio’s performance of the “Easter” sonata in the Nelson Music Room.