Duke PhD candidate Angela Mace, advised by eminent Mendelssohn scholar Prof. R. Larry Todd, determined that Felix Mendelssohn’s “Easter” sonata had actually been written by his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel—a story we’ll explore in depth this Thursday in an interview with Mace.
On September 7 at Duke Performances, capping a daylong symposium on Mace’s findings, the Claremont Trio plays one famous work by each Mendelssohn sibling as well as the “Easter” sonata for solo piano, properly attributed and restored. The latter serves as a revelatory introduction not just to Hensel, but also to new pianist Andrea Lam, who joins twin sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin as Donna Kwong’s replacement. We spoke with cellist Julia Bruskin by phone to learn about the Trio’s history with Fanny Hensel, the importance of Mace’s scholarship, and saying goodbye to a founding member.
The Thread: The Claremont is well-known for its Felix Mendelssohn—what about its rapport with Fanny Hensel, his sister?
Julia Bruskin: We discovered Fanny Hensel fairly early on. A great mentor of ours, Harris Goldsmith, suggested her to us in the first couple years that we were playing together, which is now 13 years ago. We listened to Fanny Hensel’s only piano trio, the Opus 11 in D minor, and really loved it. She wrote it one year after Felix’s second trio, the C minor, fairly near the end of her life. We’ve played it a number of times around the country and believe in the piece not because she is Felix’s sister, but because it’s a great piece of music with a whole lot of emotion and drama.
Were there any similarities or differences between Fanny Hensel’s music and her brother’s that interested you?
There is certainly a sort of Mendelssohnian sound that I think many audience members will recognize when they hear Fanny’s music. She and her brother shared music all the time, played things for each other, and talked about pieces they were writing, so there is certainly an interplay between the two styles. Felix loved his sister and respected her music immensely. Not only were they writing at the same time, but they lived in the same household for a long time and were very close collaborators.
How do you characterize the Mendelssohnian sound?
It’s a very romantic, lyrical aesthetic. Both of them write very virtuosically, especially for the piano. In their time, piano writing was taking on a new characteristic as something virtuosic. Felix and Fanny both discovered new ways to create these colorful textures, big cascades of notes, not just arpeggios but different figurations that made the piano more orchestral in sound. And also, a signature of Felix Mendelssohn is a song without words, where piano, violin, and cello evoke the beauty of a human voice singing about something.
Had you followed the mystery around the “Easter” sonata’s provenance with any interest?
I hadn’t known about it until we met R. Larry Todd and Angela Mace at Duke last year when we played a couple of performances. I had known for a long time that Fanny’s career was not able to flourish in the same way that Felix’s was because women weren’t given those opportunities, and were expected to stay home and raise children. But I didn’t know about this particular piece or the question of its attribution until we sat down and had a wonderful meal with [Todd and Mace] and talked about the process of discovery.
What excited you about the discovery?
The “Easter” sonata was written around 1828, but was never signed, which was not that unusual then. People assumed it was by Felix, mostly for want of doing any research, because he wrote many more pieces than Fanny did. It sounded like Felix Mendelssohn. But Angela Mace, this wonderful doctoral student at Duke, went to France and met the one person who had ever recorded it, and was able to see the only copy of the manuscript. She said it was very clear right away that it was Fanny’s handwriting. It shows the power of research, going back to the original manuscript—for musicians, that can be really illuminating, seeing what the composer’s hand looked like. And for a woman, who as a composer was not publicized during her lifetime, to have this piece come to light and be celebrated for her—it’s an exciting thing for women, I think.
Can you tell us about the character of the “Easter” sonata and why you chose Mendelssohn’s C minor trio and Hensel’s D minor trio as the framing pieces?
The “Easter” sonata is very beautiful and almost mystical, I would say. It was written during the Easter holidays, though it doesn’t seem to have a direct programmatic connection. Among Fanny Hensel’s works, the D minor piano trio is one of the most successful and commonly performed. It’s one of her larger scale works. Since she and Felix wrote these two trios within a year of each other, I think it’s a neat comparison to put them on a podium together and hear the connections. There’s also a neat connection between Felix Mendelssohn’s C minor trio and Fanny’s “Easter” Sonata, because both of them use a hymn tune in the last movement as a culmination, though in very different ways.
Can you talk about the transition from Donna Kwong to Andrea Lam, your new pianist, who will be performing the “Easter” sonata?
We played with Donna for 12 years—an amazing pianist. She had a baby almost two years ago and just decided that all the touring was more than she wanted to do. We were really sad to lose her! But it was an amazing surprise to find Andrea, who fit in just beautifully and had her own wonderful musical personality that inspired us in a new way. We’ve been playing some of these pieces for 12 years and it’s great to have new blood, someone with a fresh perspective to question things we may take for granted.
The Claremont Trio performs the “Easter” sonata and more in the Nelson Music Room on September 7. For tickets and more information, visit the concert’s Duke Performances web page.