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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Louise Farrenc: Composer, Pianist and ‘Reluctant Revolutionary’

Louise Farrenc (1804 - 1875) was a French composer, pianist and teacher. Her family and upbringing were very bohemian, and she grew up in a cultured society which included sculptors, painters and, significantly, artistic women. She was a musically gifted child, studying piano at a very early age; encouraged by Clementi and Hummel, no less. She entered the Paris Conservatory aged just 15.

After graduation, Farrenc began a career as a critically acclaimed concert pianist. In 1842 she was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory – the only woman to hold such a post throughout the 19th century. She remained in the post for 30 years, gaining a reputation as one of the greatest piano professors in Europe.

Louise Farrenc was a seriously accomplished composer. During the 1820s and 1830s she composed (almost) exclusively for the piano. Robert Schumann was an admirer and he certainly wasn’t an easy critic to please. During the 1840s Farrenc’s output extended to chamber music – two piano quintets, a sextet for piano and winds, a nonet for winds and strings. She also wrote two orchestral overtures and three symphonies. Of these, the Third Symphony in G minor (Op. 36) is regarded as being the finest.

Despite her career as a concert pianist and acclaimed composer, Farrenc was paid far less than the male professors at the conservatory. No surprise there then. She campaigned tirelessly for equality of pay and, after the very successful premiere of her nonet it was granted.

Writing in BBC Classical Music magazine, Nina Green lists her version of Louise Farrenc’s top six works. So we have, in no particular order:

Written in 1847 (after her First in 1842 and Second in 1845), this symphony 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.’

Nonet in Eb (Op. 38)

‘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.’

‘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.’

Trente études in Major and Minor (Op.26)

‘Venturing back to 1838, 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 (Op. 20)

‘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.’

Clarinet Trio in E-flat (Op. 33)

However, for a real insight into this work and the collective struggle for women to be recognised as composers in their own right, with their own voices I strongly recommend Emma Johnson’s excellent article ‘Louise Farrenc, Reluctant Revolutionary’:

‘The Clarinet Trio is a sparkling piece, well written for clarinet, piano and cello and dating from 1856. Revolutionary it is not – the style brings to mind Mendelssohn – but lyrical and entertaining certainly are apt descriptive words. And the reason that such a lovely piece has not been known about until recently? It was written by a woman.

Today we take it for granted that women can compose music but in Farrenc’s era this was not commonly held to be true. Influential 18th-century thinkers such as Rousseau contended that boys’ and girls’ brains were different; girls were born only to run a household and were less rational than boys. Immanuel Kant praised the “beautiful virtue” of women, regarding them as the weaker, passive sex, unable to withstand the strenuous demands of creativity…’ 


You can hear Louise Farrenc’s Clarinet Trio in E-flat performed by Amabile: Lesley Schatzberger (clarinet), Nicola Tate Baxter (cello) and Paul Nicholson (piano) at their Late Music concert: Saturday 6 April at 1.00pm.

The programme will also include Brahms’ Clarinet Trio (Op 114) and Morris Dances – Transcriptions by Steve Crowther. For ticket information and purchase please click this link.

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