Duke Graduate Student Unlocks ‘Mystery of the Lost Sonata’

It was an unsolved mystery of classical music. An “Easter” sonata, sometimes attributed to the 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn, had largely disappeared from history. Scholars suspected the work was actually by the celebrated composer’s sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. But the manuscript seemed lost, so how could they prove it?

Duke University announced this week that a 28-year-old Ph.D. student in musicology, Angela R. Mace, had unraveled the riddle, demonstrating that the 1828 sonata was Hensel’s work. How Ms. Mace did it is a story of archival digging and sheer luck that culminated in a trembling moment of excitement as she held the missing manuscript in the Paris office of its private owner.

The discovery helps shed light on a composer who wrote during an era when a musical career was impossible for such a high-status “lady of leisure.” Hensel lived in “a golden cage” while her younger brother won international fame and a place in history as a key composer of the early Romantic period. Today, Hensel is known for smaller pieces, especially “lieder,” or songs, says Ms. Mace.

The 25-minute “Easter” sonata adds a significant work to her catalog, one Ms. Mace hopes will find its way onto concert programs. (You can listen to the sonata’s first movement here.)

“That she did write this large form so successfully helps us re-evaluate who she was as a composer,” Ms. Mace says. “It helps us see her not just as a composer of these small forms, but someone who was every bit as ambitious, and every bit as capable, as a man.”

Ms. Mace learned of the mystery from her adviser, R. Larry Todd, a Duke professor who has published biographies of both Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel. Letters and diary entries mentioned the sonata. But no music seemed to have survived. And in a Berlin archive, there was a 22-page gap in a bound collection of Hensel’s handwritten scores, according to Duke’s account of the “mystery of the lost sonata.” One catalog of Hensel’s work suggested that those missing pages had been the “Easter” sonata.

Then, four years ago, a clue surfaced. Mr. Todd got hold of a 1972 recording of the sonata by Eric Heidsieck, a French pianist whose album attributed the piece to Felix Mendelssohn. Here was a living person who had been in contact with the manuscript. But Ms. Mace ran into a brick wall: She couldn’t track him down.

Her luck finally changed in a moment of serendipity. She mentioned the pianist’s name to a new faculty member who had lived and studied in Paris about 10 years ago. He was “a friend with a friend of Eric Heidsieck’s son, and that’s how I got his address and telephone number,” Ms. Mace says.

Mr. Heidsieck secured her an appointment with the manuscript’s owner, whose identity she declines to reveal. In 2010 she was able to inspect the document for about 45 minutes. It wasn’t signed. But Ms. Mace had studied the Mendelssohns’ handwriting, and through that and other details, she felt certain of its author: Fanny Hensel.

(Fanny Hensel photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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