Farrenc, Louise

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Though multi-faceted and mightily gifted, the French composer Louise Farrenc could easily have gone entirely unnoticed, as Jessica Duchen explains

Louise Farrenc

Who is Louise Farrenc and what is she famous for?

Louise Farrenc is a major musical personality hiding in plain sight. Composer, pianist, researcher, editor and educator, she was praised by Berlioz and Schumann; she became the Paris Conservatoire’s only 19th-century female professor of piano; she fought for equal pay as a woman, and won it. Born in the year Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, when Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony was contemporary music, she lived to see the devastation of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the birth of Saint-Saëns’s Société Nationale de Musique. Most significantly, her music – too long neglected – is seriously good.

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We named Louise Farrenc one of the world’s most famous female composers ever

When was Louise Farrenc born?

Louise Farrenc was born Jeanne Louise Dumont on 31 May 1804, into a Parisian family of artists. Her father, Jacques-Edme Dumont, was from a family who had been sculptors since the time of Louis XIV – her brother, Auguste Dumont, continued the tradition.

When did Louise Farrenc’s musical talent first come to light?

Louise Farrenc’s musical talent showed early. At first she studied the piano with Cécile Soria, a pupil of Clementi, before taking instruction from two of Europe’s most impressive pianists, Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Like most of their peers, these musicians were not only performers, but composers; as a fine player, Louise would have been expected to create music too.

Being female, though, she was not permitted to join the composition class at the Paris Conservatoire – it remained closed to women until 1870. From the age of 15 she took composition lessons, privately, with Antonín Reicha, among whose other pupils were, at various times, Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod and Viardot. Luckily, her family, having included several female artists in the past, was open-minded enough to encourage her.

Who did Louise Farrenc marry?

So, too, was the man she married, Aristide Farrenc. Louise’s senior by a decade, he was a flautist from Marseilles who was studying at the Conservatoire and performed from time to time in concerts at the Sorbonne. They married when she was only 17. For a while thereafter they toured France as a flute and piano duo.

What was Louise Farrenc‘s main instrument?

Back in Paris, Farrenc (as she now was) resumed her studies with Reicha, and thereafter her career as a pianist, pausing once more in 1826 when a different family commitment arrived in the form of her daughter, Victorine. She was by now also composing piano works of some quantity and high quality, dazzling concert pieces that require a powerful technique. They include sets of variations on themes by Rossini, Weber, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and Aristide himself.

Her music might have remained in the shadows had Aristide not intervened. The couple set up a publishing house, Éditions Farrenc, via which he encouraged his wife to make her music available, ‘works which her modesty, of a degree rarely encountered, impelled her to keep unpublished,’ wrote one colleague. In 1838 they published her Trente études dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 26, the first of her several substantial sets of piano studies. In 1845, these became compulsory for all piano students at the Conservatoire.

When did Louise Farrenc become the piano professor at Paris Conservatory?

 Louise Farrenc became in 1842 that institution’s second-ever female piano professor – the first having had a two-year sojourn in the previous century. She stayed for three decades, teaching myriad promising talents, all of them female (as stipulated by the Conservatoire) and many graduating with the coveted Premier Prix. The French school of pianism became celebrated for its technical wizardry, precision and jeu perlé (light, staccato playing), all offset by a subtle poetry. It is reasonable – especially when exploring her études – to suspect that she helped to establish that approach.

She was meanwhile branching out, composing chamber music, works for piano and orchestra, overtures and symphonies. Things that women did not often write at this time. Things, in fact, that not many French composers in general were writing. Parisian musical life had other preoccupations. When Chopin, exiled from Poland in 1830, settled in the French capital, he did so partly for the excellence of its opera, bel canto singing being his passion. Here he could hear everything from Rossini and Donizetti to the latest, vast-scale hits by Meyerbeer. Symphonies and chamber music, in comparison, were thin on the ground.

Farrenc inclined in a very different direction. Her two piano quintets, four piano trios, two violin sonatas and one for cello, the Sextet for piano and woodwind and the Nonet for string quartet and wind quintet are closer by far to the style of Schubert, Mendelssohn or Weber than to anything by Meyerbeer or Berlioz. But speaking of Chopin, there is occasionally in her works an audible nod towards him: her Grand Variations on a Theme by Count Gallenberg for piano and orchestra bears no small resemblance to his variations for the same forces on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’, both works including a slow, atmospheric introduction.

Whether Farrenc met and heard Liszt remains a mystery; it’s hard to believe she did not. Seven years Farrenc’s junior, he lived for a good while in Paris and enjoyed his glory days as a superstar recitalist in the 1830s-40s. Sometimes the two lighted upon the same inspiration: Meyerbeer’s operatic extravaganza sparked both Réminiscences des Huguenots by Liszt (1836) and Souvenirs des Hugenots (1837), a fantasy and variations, by Farrenc.

What music is Louise Farrenc particularly famous for?

All the more ironic, perhaps, that Farrenc’s crowning achievements were her three symphonies. Each is a substantial work in four movements: she chooses minor keys and fills the music with drama, contrast and striking ideas which, while they may draw comparison with early German Romanticism, have little on the surface to do with mid-19th-century France. They are all finely constructed, expertly orchestrated and full of character.

Tantalisingly, she also wrote a piano concerto which, in a Musical Quarterly study of the composer in the 1970s, the musicologist Bea Friedland described as ‘clearly the apex of Mme Farrenc’s achievements in the larger forms’. It was left unfinished and languishes in the Bibliothèque Nationale. She also apparently considered writing an opera, but no libretto was forthcoming from the management of Paris’s two opera houses. It was all but impossible to establish a materially successful composing career in Paris without writing opera, but these institutions were having none of her.

The Nonet was nevertheless rapturously received upon its premiere in 1849, at which the ensemble was led by the youthful Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim – then barely 18 – who later became best friend to Brahms and the Schumanns. It was after this triumph that she took the opportunity to write to the head of the Conservatoire, Daniel Auber, requesting that her salary be raised to match those of her male colleagues, the pianist Herz, cellist Franchomme and violinist Alard: ‘I dare hope, M. Director, that you will agree to fix my fees at the same level as these gentlemen, because, setting aside questions of self-interest, if I do not receive the same incentive they do, one might think that I have not invested all the zeal and diligence necessary to fulfil the task which has been entrusted to me.’ Auber listened. Farrenc won.

Into the 1850s, Farrenc continued to write piano études and chamber music; but tired-sounding comments from contemporaries suggest that breakthroughs in the symphonic field were impossible in such a cultural climate. The critic François-Joseph Fétis wrote in 1862: ‘Unfortunately, the genre of large-scale instrumental music to which Madame Farrenc, by nature and formation, felt herself called involves performance resources which a composer can acquire… only with enormous effort. Another factor here is the public, as a rule not a very knowledgeable one, whose only standard for measuring the quality of a work is the name of its author. If the composer is unknown, the audience remains unreceptive… Such were the obstacles that Madame Farrenc met… and which caused her to despair.’

Why did  Louise Farrenc stop composing?

Then tragedy struck. Victorine Farrenc had inherited her mother’s gifts, studying piano at the Conservatoire with her, winning the Premier Prix in 1844 and embarking upon a promising career, also composing some piano studies and songs. But after developing a ‘nervous malady’ aged about 20, she died of the illness at 32. The devastated Louise composed nothing more thereafter.

Farrenc found solace in her teaching, and she worked with Aristide on his obsession: researching early music. The pair produced together a vast, multi-volume anthology of keyboard works from across the centuries, Le trésor des pianistes. When, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, a new generation of composers set about reinventing French style by exploring the Baroque harpsichordists, somebody had already done the groundwork.

She also did not go without recognition, being awarded the Prix Chartier by the Académie des Beaux Arts twice, in 1861 and again in ’69. Aristide Farrenc died in 1865; his wife outlived him by one decade. In due course the world forgot her.

It would be nice to think that this was not because she was a woman. Styles had evolved, Farrenc herself had stopped writing in the 1850s, and the 20th century then brought along other challenges. But given the quality of her music, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been rehabilitated sooner had she been a man. Her vivid voice, her legacy as a researcher and teacher and her pioneering spirit as a woman who fought her own corner and won are all ripe for appreciation at last. 

When did Louise Farrenc die?

Louise Farrenc died in 1875, aged 71

Louise Farrenc composing style

Viennese style in France

Farrenc’s predilection for chamber music and symphonies is rooted in the Viennese classics. Her style has a drama, lyricism and worked-out argument comparable to the soundworlds of Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn, but with an energetic spirit entirely her own.

Brilliance, clarity, stamina

Most of Farrenc’s chamber music involves her own instrument, the piano, and the majority of her works are solos for it. Her writing is never flashy, but still presents the pianist with a major workout requiring a fast, light, even touch, great clarity and tremendous staying power.

The unsentimental Romantic

Unlike some, she avoided grandiosity or sentiment. Her rigour of construction and purity of thought prefigures Saint-Saëns. If her pianistic focus places her in line with Chopin, she never let herself head for the dreamworlds his music inhabited. One senses a down-to-earth outlook, curious and probing, but with no time for nonsense.

Head wind

Married to a flautist, she sometimes included the instrument in her chamber works, resulting in some unusual combinations, such as a Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn – magnificently written, it brings out the best of each instrument’s inherent qualities.

Read our reviews of the latest Farrenc recordings here

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Illustration by Matt Herring