Louise Farrenc, 19th-century composer, surges back into sound

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Louise Farrenc, 19th-century composer, surges back into sound
Louise Farrenc (née Jeanne-Louise Dumont), c. 1855, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Read the reviews that composer, pianist and teacher Louise Farrenc received in the middle of the 19th century, and the kinds of gendered, backhanded compliments that male critics have so often given to female artists pop up with tiresome regularity.

There was innuendo. “By the magic of her musical palette,” a critic wrote in 1841, “the composer envelops you with nocturnal images, at once mysterious and blissful.”

There was surprise. “It is such a rarity for a woman to compose symphonies of real talent,” offered a journal in 1851.

There was patronizing praise. “Well written,” Hector Berlioz called a Farrenc overture in 1840, “and orchestrated with a talent rare among women.”

But if Farrenc’s success, greater than any of her female contemporaries except Emilie Mayer, had critics admitting she stymied their stereotypes, those stereotypes were then slyly reimposed. “The dominant quality of this work, composed by a woman, is precisely what one would least expect to find,” a critic wrote of her First Symphony in 1845. “There is more power than delicacy.”

Conductor François-Joseph Fétis, one of her leading promoters, made the gambit clear. “With Mme. Farrenc,” he wrote, “the inspiration and the art of composing are of masculine proportions.”

As the classical-music world belatedly tries to put behind it the myriad prejudices it has inherited and perpetuated, Farrenc’s music is returning to a prominence that her newfound proponents argue she has always deserved.

“The symphonies and the overtures should hold a similar place as Schumann and Mendelssohn,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted Farrenc’s Second Symphony this summer with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and leads her Third with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal on Oct. 29. “I do believe that she’s completely deserving of that.”

Scholarly attention to Farrenc remains meager in English, with no full biography appearing since Bea Friedland’s in 1980; unlike Florence Price, for example, she has enjoyed little in the way of persistent academic advocacy.

But much of the chamber music in which Farrenc excelled has been recorded, including her sonatas, piano trios and famous Nonet, the success of which in 1850 led her to demand, and receive, equal pay on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory, where she had become the first female professor in 1842.

“I find that a lot of pianist-composers from that time knew what instruments should sound like, but their craftsmanship was not always as immaculate as hers,” said hornist James Sommerville, who performs the Nonet with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players on Nov. 7. “She has a great ear for melody, a great sense of structure.”

And orchestras are turning to the three turbulent symphonies Farrenc wrote in the 1840s, which achieved significant success despite the Parisian public’s hostility to orchestral scores.

“They are written in a style that is both Romantic and Classical, with a great thematic and harmonic originality, both poetic and energetic,” said conductor Laurence Equilbey, who released recordings of the First and Third with the Insula Orchestra this past summer and leads the Third with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston on Nov. 5 and 7. “Her music is not as avant-garde as that of Berlioz, for example, but it is so solidly constructed.”

Craft was Farrenc’s trademark, one she honed in a strikingly supportive environment.

Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in 1804, she came from a line of court sculptors and grew up among artists resident at the Sorbonne. Her brother Auguste’s “The Spirit of Liberty” still crowns the Place de la Bastille.

Farrenc learned piano and theory from 6, tutored by a godmother who had studied with Muzio Clementi. At 15, she began private lessons with Anton Reicha, a friend of Beethoven’s who, as a professor at the Conservatory that barred Farrenc from entry as a composition student, also taught Berlioz, Liszt and César Franck.

She briefly broke off these studies in 1821 to marry Aristide Farrenc, a flutist and publisher of some of the era’s major composers, Beethoven included. It was an unusually congenial match, if not an affluent one. Aristide encouraged Louise to perform, partnered with her to organize salons and other events that showcased her writing in the context of their joint interests, and, crucially, published her works.

Conforming to the composer-virtuoso model of the day, Farrenc’s early piano pieces were rondos or sets of variations on popular and operatic tunes, but they were far from the ostentatious, flimsy norm. Her “Air Russe Varié,” from 1835, caught the attention of Robert Schumann, who praised its “delightful canonic games” in the spirit of Bach, and declared that “one must fall under their charm.”

Joanne Polk, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, last year released an excellent recording of the “Air Russe” and half of Farrenc’s set of 30 Etudes, which — like Chopin’s from the same decade — escape their pedagogical constraints.

“She really knew how to write well for the piano,” Polk said, “so that the music fits beautifully in the fingers and yet challenges you.”

Farrenc laid the groundwork for a generation of female pianists to succeed as interpreters in Paris, a group that included her daughter Victorine. Victorine’s first prize at the Conservatory in 1844 — one of several pupils of Louise’s to achieve that distinction — foreshadowed what the journal Le Ménestrel declared in 1845 would be the “reign of the women.”

Even so, as musicologist Katharine Ellis has written, Farrenc was unique among such women for her large-scale compositions, finding a niche as audiences and critics at once enthroned Beethoven and sought a retreat from his late style.

This was a difficult environment for anybody to write in, let alone a woman, but it was an unavoidable one. Every living composer who had a symphony performed from 1831 to 1849 by the Société des Concerts, Paris’ sole enduring outlet for orchestral music, found Beethoven closing the bill. Even at matinees chez Farrenc, Beethoven dominated programs, although she sometimes took the opportunity to promote his more radical works, playing his Op. 109 sonata at the premiere of her Second Piano Quintet in 1840.

Like Mendelssohn, Farrenc drew praise for working within the confines of older traditions. When the prestigious Institute de France awarded her a chamber-music prize in 1869, it cited her for works that “glow with the purest classical style.”

That is not to say that her works sound dutifully conservative now, although that reputation surely once hurt their prospects; they seem to glance back less in imitation, and more as if to teach listeners where they are coming from.

Her two overtures from 1834 — Pablo Heras-Casado and the Pittsburgh Symphony perform the first on Oct. 22 and 24 — look back to Haydn and Mozart, just as some of her etudes trained players in Baroque styles. But they have a spirit, even in their darkness, that is wholly their own.

The same is true of the symphonies. The First, from 1841, “is more in a Baroque style,” Equilbey said, “really the beginning of something.”

The Second, from 1845, is somewhat more experimental. “The Scherzo reminds me of the first symphonies of Bruckner, with the same kind of covered angst; it’s fleeting, but it’s dark,” Nézet-Séguin said. “There is a connection with Mendelssohn in the last movement, in the counterpoint, but she takes it to another level. It’s used as a dramatic construction.”

The Third, from 1847, is her masterpiece, with a brisk, light Scherzo and a slow movement that unfolds gloriously.

“When I dug inside the score, I discovered an incredibly skillful hand,” said Gianandrea Noseda, who led a fiercely dramatic account of the Third with the National Symphony Orchestra in June and will reprise it in February. “She had a personal language, while reflecting the form. There are moments were she suspends the development section, for instance, inserting more ideas, going in the direction of a third melodic idea without getting to that point. It’s very creative.”

But Farrenc’s development was, perhaps, cut short. After the death of her daughter in 1859, she retreated from composition, writing just a few miniatures.

She turned instead to trying to start an early-music revival, arranging a series of lecture-recitals in the Salle Érard from 1862, at which her students paired her works with those of Byrd, Frescobaldi, Rameau and others. When Aristide died in 1865, he left only eight completed volumes of their carefully edited compendium of three centuries of piano music, “Le Trésor des Pianistes.” Louise added 15 more, while continuing to teach.

Farrenc died Sept. 15, 1875, with a notice reaching The New York Times later that month. By then, tastes had already started to turn. “It is sad to say,” wrote one witness at her memorial, “but at the funeral rites for this genuine artist, the Conservatory — where she was professor for 30 years — was conspicuous by its absence.”

Happily, Farrenc is an absence no more.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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