Teacher, composer and equality campaigner: Louise Farrenc was a force to be reckoned with. Born in 1804 into a progressive family of sculptors and artists, she was encouraged to embrace her creative abilities from an early age.
As well as being an enthusiastic pianist, she harnessed a love for composition and was enrolled at the prestigious Paris Conservatory during her teens. Here, she began composition lessons with Anton Reicha (who later schooled Berlioz and Liszt), and went on to write chamber music, piano works and symphonies. Alongside maintaining a thriving concert pianist career, in 1842 she was appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory – the only female professor appointed in the entire 19th century.
She remained popular as a performer, but sadly, her compositions never gained the traction achieved by those of her male counterparts. She persisted nevertheless, and continued to compose well into the 1860s. Fast-forward to today and her legacy prevails: the rediscovery of her music has deemed her a musician of enviable accomplishment. We’ve compiled a list of her six greatest (and most memorable) pieces that deserve your attention.
Symphony No. 3
While best known for her chamber music, Farrenc also composed many orchestral works. Her Third Symphony, written in 1847 (after her First in 1842 and Second in 1845), is energetic and deliciously rich in texture. Influences from Beethoven (a friend of her teacher, Anton Reicha) are plentiful, particularly in the final movement, which opens with bold and ample strings. The Adagio movement is equally glorious, transforming from a gentle clarinet and oboe melody to full-bodied symphonic pleasure very early on. All four movements are worth a listen.
The Nonet, written for the combined forces of string quartet and wind quintet, is arguably her most popular work. It was composed in 1849 and is a sonic feast for the ears. The third movement is particularly striking. Characterised by dotted quavers and syncopation, the introductory string writing is majestic – fiendish even – with dextrous pizzicato movement. Abundant in chromatic passages and playful themes, it complements the other three movements nicely.
Violin Sonata in A
Farrenc was clearly at home when composing for piano and violin: it was the former that spearheaded her performance career. Composed in 1850, all four movements of the Violin Sonata are tremendously varied, venturing through delightful ebbs and flows of tempo and dissonance. An assortment of inspiration (including the violin sonatas of Schubert and Mendelssohn among others) can be spotted if you listen closely enough. In fact, there’s a hint of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the end of the first movement.
30 Studies in Major and Minor
Venturing back to 1836, we visit a selection of Farrenc’s piano works. This was just four years after she had departed from composing solely for piano – and it's clear among all the pieces that she was a pianist through and through. The techniques used in these studies range from the virtuosic and polyrhythmic patterns of No. 17 (which highlights the flexibility of the piano and satisfies all the necessary components of a Toccata) to the relatively calm air of a children’s nursery song in No. 12. Some of the pieces could be considered chaotic (No. 19), while others may sound like a lullaby (No. 10). The character of each piece is certainly open to interpretation, but it is undeniable that the variation in her studies is nothing short of mastery.
Concertante Variations on a Swiss tune
This is a collection of eight short pieces for piano and violin. With an average duration of around one minute for each piece, they are digestible, accessible and easy to listen to. Despite originating from the same matter, each one has its own dramatic personality, and the primary instrument is well balanced throughout. No. 3 is a particular delight – the piano tap-dances around the violin, plucked, which creates a charming flirtation between the two instruments. The pieces are on Spotify here:
Clarinet Trio in E-flat
This piece was dedicated to Adolphe Leroy, an important clarinettist who, like Farrenc, taught at the Paris Conservatory. The piece, composed in 1861, is in four movements with complex relationships between the clarinet, piano and cello. It explores overlapping rhythms, diverse textures and exhilarating musical variability, the result: a dazzling presentation of how three different instruments and soundworlds can work together seamlessly.
To hear more of Farrenc’s work, see our Best of Louise Farrenc playlist here:
Written by Nina Green