The question of the authorship of a musical manuscript has finally been solved thanks to musicology doctoral candidate Angela Mace.
Mace began studying German composer Felix Mendelssohn during her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. In 2007, after enrolling at Duke, Mace began researching the “Easter Sonata” mystery—the long-running search for the true identity of the Easter Sonata composer. Through interviews and extensive research, Mace located the original sonata manuscript in 2010. After an analysis of this manuscript, Mace discovered that the Easter Sonata was not written by Mendelssohn but instead by his sister Fanny Hensel.
“When I saw that manuscript for the first time, it was such a great moment of excitement,” Mace said.
Mendelssohn expert Larry Todd, Arts and Sciences professor of music, was Mace’s inspiration for her pursuit. Mace came to Duke specifically to study with Todd, who she met in 2005 while studying Mendelssohn manuscripts at Oxford University the summer before her senior year at Vanderbilt. Todd introduced Mace to the Easter Sonata mystery in one of his classes when he played an original recording of the sonata and discussed the uncertainty around the composer. Mace said her intrigue was immediate.
Mace’s research led her to Berlin in 2009, where she looked at original Mendelssohn family manuscripts and documents that held no further clues. By 2010, she was able to visit pianist Eric Heidsieck, who had recorded the 1970s version of the sonata that Todd played in class. Mace said that through Heidsieck’s connections, she was able to visit the archivist in possession of the original Easter Sonata manuscript and confirm that the composer was in fact Hensel, not Mendelssohn.
This discovery has significant implications for the music community, Todd said. Like Mace, Todd said he hopes that the discovery of the true composer of the Easter Sonata will bring renewed interest to the lesser known member of the Mendelssohn family.
Todd noted that her style, though similar to her brother’s, has characteristic distinctions, but due to her role in society as an upper class woman, she received much less attention.
“[Hensel] grappled with the stylistic differences of Bach, Beethoven and her brother in her work,” he said. “There is a historical impediment that takes a while to overcome.... We hope that Fanny Hensel will enjoy the same revival of other 19th century women in similar fields.”
Duke held a symposium to celebrate Mace’s discovery Sept. 7. The symposium included a Duke Performances concert from the Claremont Trio, a piano trio that includes Juilliard School alumni.
“We decided to combine the two things and actually have the piece performed by the pianist in the trio,” said Jane Hawkins, chair of the music department and professor of the practice of music.
Aside from the publicity received for the discovery, the research changed the direction of Mace’s dissertation to focus strictly on the similarities between Hensel’s and Mendelssohn’s styles.
“My initial goal of my dissertation was to use it as a case study: to write the analysis of other music, see the style parameters and apply these conclusions to the sonata to then argue, along with documentary evidence and stylistic evidence, that Fanny Hensel was the composer,” Mace said. “Now I’m able to use [the sonata] as an engine rather than an end goal.”
Mace said she hopes that interest in Hensel’s work will increase due to the discovery. She is optimistic that the analysis of the previously lost manuscript will raise Hensel’s profile as a composer and make her music as equally studied as that of Mendelssohn’s.
Mace’s discovery in the mystery of the Easter Sonata is exciting in the music world but on a personal level as well.
“You hope that you’re going to do something original and something that’s going to change scholarship, but you don’t expect to actually find a new manuscript or new source, or rediscover something like this,” she said. “It’s just a huge joy and a dream come true to actually be able to do this.”