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Isata Kanneh-Mason with piano
Isata Kanneh-Mason, photo © Robin Clewley

Born 1805, Fanny Mendelssohn was sister to the more famous composer Felix, but a prolific composer in her own right. She is thought to have written around 450 works, of which only a few have been published. Even to this day her legacy is overshadowed by her brother, who was unsupportive of her craft despite putting his own name to much of her work.

The ‘Easter Sonata’, a work for piano, first came to light in 1972. It wasn’t until 2012 that American musicologist Angela Mace Christian recognised this as the work of a 22-year-old Fanny when it was previously thought to belong to Felix. Research is now ongoing in an effort to reveal the full extent of Fanny’s back catalogue.

Sheila Hayman is Fanny's great-great-great-granddaughter and can recount this intriguing back story as well as shed light on why and how it may have come about: “The piano itself was revolutionary in its day, giving Fanny’s generation of respectable young women the first outlet for their physical energies as performers, and giving Fanny herself, as composer, a place to pour out the feelings and ideas she’s not free to express in words.”

She also speaks passionately about the parallels between Fanny and accomplished performer Isata Kanneh-Mason, “Like Fanny, Isata is a virtuosa pianist brought up in a house full of music, with a gifted younger brother whose talent she’s nurtured alongside her own,” and Isata will perform the ‘Easter Sonata’ at The Elgar Concert Hall on the evening of 5 October.

Isata Kanneh-Mason was the recipient of the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award, a 2020 Opus Klassik award for best young artists and, as a member of the Kanneh-Mason family, the 2021 best clsssical artist at the Global Awards. Her debut album on Decca Classics, “Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann”, entered the UK classical charts at No. 1 when it was praised by Gramophone magazine as “one of the most charming and engaging debuts”.

Isata’s inspiring program for her Barber recital will also feature the work of Clara Schumann, another female composer from the male-dominated canon. This makes for a delightful program featuring works from a time when women in the field were often overlooked, made even more notable when performed by a pioneering female performer within the contemporary music scene. However, Sheila notes that we should strive for a musical landscape where this is far from unusual: “In a world where, 200 years after Fanny, only 5% of music performed in the world's concert halls is by women, and less than 2% by Black women, we [can see] why Fanny’s struggle to believe she had a right to the spotlight is still an issue.”

A special thanks to Sheila Hayman for contributing to this article.