Louise Farrenc: Symphony no. 1 in Cm, op. 32

performed by the Orchestre de Bretagne under Stefan Sanderling

(cover image by Luca Bravo)

Jeanne-Louise Dumont was born 31 May 1804 in Paris to a sculptor, Jacques-Edme, and his wife, and made for herself an impressive career, for anyone, really, but especially for a woman in the 19th century.

She began her musical studies with Cecile Soria, former student of Muzio Clementi, and showed exceptional talent, to the point that she was later privileged to take lessons with such esteemed people as Moscheles and Hummel. At fifteen years old, she was allowed (or either suggested) to go study with Anton Reich (at the Paris Conservatoire, I believe), but not sure if she actually did, because the class was only for males.

She married Aristide Farrenc, a flautist ten years her senior, and set her studies aside to go on concert tours with her husband. After he tired of that, they opened a publishing house which went on to be quite successful. In 1826, she gave birth to a daughter, Victorine, who would herself become a concert pianist, but who died at the age of only 33, when Louise was in her mid-50s.

Wikipedia says that in 1840, she “returned to her studies with Reicha” (this statement is whence comes the confusion above about Reicha’s classes being only for males), and in 1842 was given a permanent professorship (piano) at the Paris Conservatoire. She was greatly respected as an educator, and even wrote a book on early music performance that was apparently highly regarded.

Despite this, she was both unfortunately and unsurprisingly underpaid at the conservatory, but this finally changed after the premiere of her nonet, at which the acclaimed Joseph Joachim performed. She was apparently thereafter able to demand (and earned) equal pay.

In total, she wrote three symphonies, two piano quintets, four piano trios, a sextet, a nonet, two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and much work for solo piano.

We could talk about being ‘unjustly forgotten’ or ‘if she’d been a male composer’ and that’s all probably true, but instead of griping about the past or contemplating hypotheticals, I’d rather we marvel at how truly fantastic her first symphony is. In doing so, I’d like for you to try to think of what might be the softer, more feminine elements in, say, Beethoven, or Schumann. They’re there, for sure, certainly in the latter composer, I think.

The work we’ll discuss today dates from 1842, is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 31 minutes:

  1. Andante Sostenuto – Allegro
  2. Adagio Cantabile
  3. Minuetto Moderato
  4. Allegro Assai

Farrenc’s first symphony begins with its longest movement, a tender introduction with clarinet that reminds us of Schumann (writing symphonies at the same time) or to me, prefigures some of the lyricism and drama of Tchaikovsky. In any case, after a beautiful, captivating, supple introduction, and a lean, muscly contrast to said solo, we find ourselves clearly in the exposition.

The introduction serves a purpose, begins the musical argument, and sets us up for the propulsive, forward thrust of the first subject. Without sounding ‘harsh’ or ‘manly’ or brazen or whatever, the young Farrenc generates vivid color and lean force, but then a brilliant turn of events, like a change in the weather, for the second subject. The listener is part of this story, but also watching it happen. We have an exposition repeat (no intro) and a rather short development where Farrenc proves not to overpromise. The beauty and charm of the two subjects sustain the drama and tension through to the end of the movement.

Is this not exquisite stuff? This woman, writing in the shadow of Beethoven’s grand ninth symphony, in an era (and especially in a country) where symphonies weren’t really the thing to be doing? We could talk about its Frenchness in the vivid, supple writing, or its symphonic Germanness, or we could just agree that it’s exquisitely good music.

The second movement is more relaxed, in contrast with the taut first movement. There’s a sense of being at ease, even a pastoral nature. The adagio cantabile is serene rather than mournful or tragic, and I’m thankful for this. While the first movement was indeed full of drama and tension, it was overall also ebullient, and a more somber second movement would have detracted from that sentiment. This movement, while far more relaxed, maintains the forward motion of the piece overall.

The third movement, marked here as a minuet, has plenty of weight to it, more than a minuet would have, but doesn’t have any of the wildness or menace that you’d expect from a scherzo of decades later. The tempo (and this could perhaps just be Sanderling’s doing) is a bit deliberate, lending a weightier feel to the music. The dainty trio calls to mind Beethoven or Schumann, and I anticipate there being a punchline in here somewhere. This is the work’s shortest movement.

The finale returns to the propulsive nature of the first movement. It’s not long, but organic, possessive of a warm spirit akin to that ineffable breathtaking, inspiring quality of Schumann or Beethoven, and also possessive of a commiserate power. This is a perfectly iconic Romantic-era sound, and ends with sufficient magnitude.

You’ll hear what you want from Farrenc’s first symphony, for sure. She was a young French woman writing a symphony that I would bet to most unbiased ears would sound much like a German man’s symphony, but even then, it’s just broad generalizations. Perhaps she has a more masculine sound than other female composers of the time, but are there really even enough to compare? In the Romantic era, as it was just gaining steam and developing into something magnificent, what should a female composer’s works have sounded like? That’s a question that I don’t think any of us can answer convincingly, so let’s just be happy with what we have here, a wonderful, rich, colorful, passionate piece from a young, exceptionally talented composer.

This is one of the (at least but I think only) two women we’ll be seeing in the French series, but there’s a lot more French music to enjoy, including some names coming up that you’ll certainly recognize, so please do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Louise Farrenc: Symphony no. 1 in Cm, op. 32

  1. As you might know, Liszt also studied with Reicha, but this was private lessons, since he wasn’t admitted to Conservatoire due to his foreign citizenship. Farrenc probably did the same.

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