Something Old / Something New

    Louise Farrenc: Pride of the Paris Conservatory

    Issue 148

    Born in Paris in 1804, Louise Farrenc grew up in a swirl of artsy types, the true embodiment of the bohemian spirit. Yet she must have been focused and disciplined despite that environment, since she managed to get into the prestigious Paris Conservatory when she was only 15. While her work has hardly been part of the central canon of 19th-century repertoire, over the past year or so Farrenc has gained increasing attention as an important composer of various instrumental genres.

    The fact that she did not limit herself to solo piano music and small chamber ensembles is remarkable on its own. At the time, female composers, when they were tolerated at all, were discouraged from bothering to compose anything that needed to be played outside of their own parlors. Clara Wieck Schumann is a case in point; you can see my piece about her in Issue 92. Like Clara Schumann, Farrenc was able to overcome society’s obstacles more than other women because of a family advantage: Farrenc’s husband was a music publisher.

    Although Farrenc did write some wonderful works for small forces, she also composed three symphonies. Happily, all of those genres are well represented in recent recordings.

    I do not mean to discount her solo piano compositions. After all, they were praised by Munzio Clementi, one of the inventors of the classical keyboard sonata (Beethoven was a big fan). As a pianist, Farrenc was a successful concertizer; as a piano teacher, she must have been quite special: she was the Paris Conservatory’s only female professor in the entire 19th century!

    In a recording released by Steinway and Sons, American pianist Joanne Polk presents a collection called Etudes and Variations for Solo Piano. While most of the tracks are from Farrenc’s two volumes of Etudes, marked only with Italian tempos, a few bear programmatic titles, in the style of piano miniatures being popularized at the time by the likes of Schumann and Mendelssohn.

    The choice to make this recording was characteristic of Polk, who has stalwartly championed female composers during her career, most recently on her best-selling CD of works by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944). This new Farrenc album shows both pianist and composer in brilliant, flattering light through performances of 15 short works.

    Souvenir des huguenots, Op. 19, finds the composer borrowing material from Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots. Polk displays simultaneous power and buoyancy in this virtuosic mini-suite. Its second section sets the German chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” as theme and variations because Meyerbeer’s opera deals with the spread of Lutheranism.

     

    As for the CD’s central work, the Etudes, that collection was so well regarded in the 19th century that Paris Conservatory adopted it as a textbook. Polk demonstrates the wide range of techniques it demands of intrepid pupils. If you’re expecting mechanical perpetual motion finger workouts like Hanon and Czerny, you’re in for a surprise. A mastery of phrasing and expression was considered as important as physical technique in the Romantic era. Here is Book 1: No. 15, Andante affettuoso:

     

    Farrenc composed about a dozen chamber pieces for various configurations. Farrenc: Music for Violin and Piano, a new recording on Brilliant Classics by violinist Daniele Orlando and pianist Linda di Carlo, concentrates on duo works. These include the eight-movement Variationes concertantes sur une mélodie Suisse, Op. 20, as well as the two violin sonatas.

    Even by the standards of 19th-century miniatures, the Swiss variations are particularly tiny, some lasting under a minute each. Farrenc lays them out like a doll-sized potluck dinner, with a little of this and a little of that, using every flavor and texture she can invent.

    Orlando plays the opening Introduzione, marked Andante maestoso, with enough Romantic passion and gravitas to make Goethe himself sigh. These achingly pulled bows with wide, wistful vibrato and gritty attacks may seem over the top to modern tastes, but that style would have been precisely right for Farrenc’s audience.

     

    Contrast the Finale, a jubilant, sparkling Vivace. For her part, di Carlo brings a touch of Alpine folksiness to her piano part when it’s called for, but easily swings into Romantic powerhouse mode at the cadences. And speaking of cadences, they do go on and on, more proof that Farrenc was a creature of her time. Just when you think the movement is ending, the musicians meander through a few remote keys until you wonder if the final tonic chord will ever arrive.

     

    Lest you picture her as some sort of self-taught savant with a keen ear for musical fashion, it’s important to recall Farrenc’s education. As a teen at the Paris Conservatory, Farrenc studied with Anton Reicha, who knew Beethoven and would soon begin teaching Liszt and Berlioz. She was right in the thick of things, in other words. No wonder she was not afraid to try her hand at orchestral writing. That category of her output included three symphonies plus a couple sets of variations and some overtures.

    Those pieces have been recorded on Naxos by the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, under the direction of Christof König. The newer disc includes the First Symphony plus both overtures and the Grand Variations on a Theme by Count Gallenberg (featuring pianist Jean Muller), presumably written for a patron who dabbled in composition. An earlier album offered Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3.

    König draws a rich sound from the orchestra, focusing on the dynamic and textural contrasts made possible by Farrenc’s imaginative orchestration. Comparisons to the rhythmic sweeps of Brahms are not inappropriate for the opening movement of her Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 32.

     

    Another new recording of Farrenc orchestral works is by Laurence Equilbey. The 59-year-old French conductor is best known for her mastery of choral music, but there’s a lot of the same kind of chordal and contrapuntal intensity in the Farrenc symphonies. The first and third are included on a disc on Erato by the Insula Orchestra.

    Farrenc clearly loved reeds. Just as the bassoon features in the First Symphony’s opening movement, so the clarinet and oboe get some starring moments in the second-movement Adagio cantabile of the Symphony No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 36. The sweet and compact melody writing displays a Mozartian touch.

     

    There’s no question that Farrenc had top-notch training and knew what to do with it. Until recently, her place in music history has not matched the level of her talents, but I’m happy to say that’s starting to change.

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