Mendelssohn's sister finally has her own musical genius honoured

Hannah Furness

In life, she was overshadowed by her famous brother, patiently composing works of genius she never expected to see the light of day.

This week, 140 years on, a "lost" work by Fanny Mendelssohn is to be played in Britain for the first time, after her descendants worked tirelessly to finally win her the recognition she deserves.

Until now, the work, called Easter Sonata, had been mistakenly attributed to her brother Felix, being recorded once in France in the 1970s in a work noting him as the composer.

Fanny Mendelssohn to be honoured for her work which experts had wrongly thought her brother had written. - Credit: Paul Grover/Telegraph

But analysis of the manuscript handwriting, notation, corrections and page numbers corresponding directly to Fanny's music book show that it was in fact written by her.

The piece will this week receive its debut on Radio 3, after her great-great-great granddaughter worked with the BBC to finally see her get credit after being "unjustly neglected by history".

The Easter Sonata will be broadcast live from a lunchtime concert at the Royal College of Music on International Women’s Day, March 8, performed SofyaGulyak.

Sheila Hayman - Credit: Paul Grover/Telegraph

And no-one will be prouder to hear it than Sheila Hayman, a documentary-maker and direct descendant of Fanny Mendelssohn.

It would be particularly significant, said Hayman, that the "ambitious, muscular" piece  would help redefine assumptions about Fanny, a woman striving to carve out her own creative life in an era which consigned her to role of housewife and mother.

Edwina Wolstencroft, BBC Radio 3 editor, said she hoped it would result in "overdue recognition" of Fanny as a "musical genius".

Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn)  - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Until recently, the Easter Sonata garnered just one brief mention in Fanny's private diary, recording that she had played it at home in April 1829.

But in common with her other compositions, it received no recognition in her lifetime and did not reach the public consciousness.

Believed lost, the manuscript did not resurface until the 1970s when a recording was made in France attributing the work to Felix.

It then disappeared once again until 2010, when an American scholar, Dr Angela Mace Christian, tracked it down to a private archive and begged the owner to allow her to study it.


Once she finally saw it in person, she matched the handwriting on the manuscript with Fanny's, dismissing theories that she could have copied it for Felix by pointing out a series of corrections suggesting it was written "live" by her. Remarkably, page numbers on the bottom of the paper matched exactly with the missing parts of a music book held in an archive elsewhere.

The original manuscript has since been sold on into private hands, and has again disappeared from public.

Radio 3 listeners will this week be the first to hear the piece played in Britain, properly credited.

Hayman, who is now working on a television documentary telling the full story, said: "The story of my ancestor Fanny Mendelssohn becomes more fascinating the more you explore it, and the still-unfinished detective story of the Easter Sonata brings it right into the present.


"It’s wonderful that the discovery of this lost work, its proper attribution to Fanny, and 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. "

Dr Angela Mace Christian said: "This is a major work, and one of huge ambition for someone aged only twenty-three. Its rediscovery and proper attribution shows Fanny’s stature as a composer in a completely new light."

Edwina Wolstencroft, BBC Radio 3 editor, said: "As part of our International Women’s Day programming we want to give a platform and a voice to female composers who have been unjustly neglected by history.

"We are delighted to be able to broadcast Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata for the first time with its rightful attribution, and hope that the live broadcast contributes towards Fanny’s overdue recognition as a musical genius."

It will be broadcast on March 8 on Radio 3 from 1pm, part of a project celebrating the previously unsung women in classical music.