As It Happens

F is for Fanny: German composer's masterpiece sonata was written by his sister

A masterpiece credited to 19th-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn was actually written by his sister Fanny, who finally got the credit at a London performance this week.
Fanny Mendelssohn wrote more than 500 songs, including the Easter Sonata originally credited to her brother. (Library of Congress)

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It took 188 years for Fanny Mendelssohn to get the credit she's due.

The 19th-century German composer penned more than 500 songs during her lifetime, including her 1829 masterpiece Easter Sonata, which had long been credited to her brother, renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn.

The song was performed under Fanny's name for the first time Wednesday at the Royal College of Music in London to mark International Women's Day. 

"It was absolutely marvellous. It was very emotional," producer Sheila Hayman, Fanny's great-great-great granddaughter and one of her biggest fans, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Finally to bring this composition into the public light, I can't imagine she would have ever been able to think of such a thing happening."

Hayman first became interested in her great-great-great grandmother's life after making a 2011 documentary about Felix for the BBC.

"His attitude to Fanny was so extraordinary, that he encouraged all of these other women composers and women musicians and yet the one woman he wouldn't encourage was his own sister," she said.

Hayman found this especially baffling because the siblings were close, even inseparable, for the most of their lives.

Felix Mendelssohn was a prolific composer — and so was his sister. (Library of Congress)

"So I started to find out more about her and I discovered that she was this marvellous woman," she said.

"The night before her wedding she rolled up her sleeves while everybody else was celebrating and she went up and wrote her own wedding music because Felix had been supposed to be sending some from London, but had sort of fallen out of a carriage or something, and couldn't deliver.

"And she sort of thought, 'Well, I've never written any organ music before, but what the hell, I'll go ahead and do it.' And she did. What a woman!"


Hayman describes Fanny's music as more "passionate," "daring," and "adventurous" than her brother's polished work. 

"Perhaps in away he was threatened not by her talent, but her emotional nature, and maybe he felt that that was somehow inappropriate or threatening," Hayman said. "You know, he wouldn't have been the first or the last man to feel that, I think, about women's passion."​

The lost sonata 

The Easter Sonata, a prime example of Fanny's passionate style, was lost for 140 years until a record collector found it in a manuscript in a Paris bookshop in 1970, the Washington Post reports

It was inscribed "F. Mendelssohn," which was assumed to mean Felix, despite the existence of a diary entry by Fanny that claimed the composition as her own.

When musicologist Angela Mace Christian, a Fanny Mendelssohn scholar, heard a recording of it, "she immediately knew it must be Fanny," Hayman said.

In 2010, Christian, then a Duke University graduate student, went digging for the truth. 

She found the manuscript in a Paris archive and determined the handwriting was Fanny's. When it was suggested to her that Fanny may have copied it out for her brother, she went a step further and matched its page numbers to those missing from one of Fanny's composition books.

'Like so many women'

Fanny Mendelssohn composed more than 500 songs before she died of a stroke in 1847 at the age of 41. Felix died of a ruptured blood vessel six months later. 

Hayman, meanwhile, says she deeply relates to her great-great-great grandmother.

"She clearly, on some level, had a completely unconquerable urge to create, and yet at the same time she was not sure she was good enough, you know, she wasn't completely convinced that this was the right for her thing to be doing — like so many women, I think then, and probably even now."


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