Belated International Women’s Day Special: Louise Farrenc
It seemed appropriate for International Women’s Day to briefly mention one of the great female composers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any.
What’s more, there aren’t even any very good female composers. It’s a struggle, frankly, to find any noteworthy female composers at all.
Oh, sure, back in the mists of time there was Hildegard, who was a genuinely innovative and interesting composer for her day. And in the modern era, Sofia Gubaidulina is widely considered one of the most important composers still living, with Kaija Saariaho also a candidate – although it’s frankly too early to say which modern composers will end up being notable in history’s hindsight. But between the two eras, it’s a desert with few oases; and in particular, during the heyday of classical music, from, say, 1750 to 1950, there were fewer composing women than ever before (presumably because, ultimately, that was also an era of historically remarkably strict gender roles). To be fair, there’s no dearth of women who have composed – there have always been bored, musical princesses and duchesses composing their own entertainments, there have always been divas and instrumental virtuose who occasionally wrote their own pieces, and there have always been curious daughters of musical families. But in only a tiny number of cases can we really say that these women were notable AS composers – rather than merely being composers notable for the oddity of being women.
[why is this? Hard to say – it’s not as simple as plain prejudice. Music has always been kinder on the disadvantaged than the rest of society – there have been black, gay and Jewish composers – and indeed women played an important role in music even in the 19th century. Female singers were the dominant musical figures of the century, and female instrumentalists were also very successful – even female music professors. It was speifically in composing (and conducting, of course) where women (and, even more so, Englishmen) were absent. Nor is it simply a problem of exclusion from education – particularly in the early part of the era, formal compositional training was something that was not seen as essential to a career as a composer. Part of it may relate to stylistic expectations: a woman who wrote ‘weakly’ would be overlooked as unimportant, but a woman who wrote ‘strongly’ would be seen as improperly masculine. More important, however, may simply be the strength of the maternal and matrimonial roles in that era. There were female performers, but they were usually young, and set aside their careers when they married (perhaps becoming teachers once their children were growing). Likewise, many female composers retired young, resulting in small oeuvres, mostly of chamber music (easily staged by newcomers) – effectively, they probably retired before they really mastered their arts. This does not really explain everything (cf. the number of great male composers who succeeded at a young age) but is probably the core of an explanation].
But there are always exceptions, to every rule. And one such exception in this case was Ms Louise Farrenc (1804-1875).
Farrenc was not born to a family of musicians, but she was born to a family of artists: her brother was a famous sculptor; her father was a famous sculptor; her grandfather was a famous sculptor; her great-grandfather was a famous sculptor; and her great-great-grandfather was a famous sculptor. She grew up in the artist’s colony in Paris, a hotbed of, relatively speaking, liberalism, and presumably encouraging for young artistic spirits. As a young girl, she was recognised as a prodigious talent at the piano, and her family arranged for the best possible musical training: she studied piano with Moscheles* and Hummel**, and eventually studied composition with Reicha*** himself.
Her career was briefly derailed by her marriage to a much older man – a flautist, who later became a musical publisher – but unusually neither wifehood nor motherhood (their daughter was herself a virtuosa pianist, before her untimely death) ended her ambitions. Quite the contrary. Having made a name for herself as an international pianist, she produced a string of piano works that gained great critical acclaim (including from Schumann; perhaps his marriage to Clara Schumann, who followed a very similar career path, encouraged him to support young female composers?); her Etudes became part of the required syllabus for pianists at the Paris Conservatoire – where she herself was appointed Professor (the only woman in France to hold such a position in the 19th century). From piano works, she graduated to chamber works; her Nonet, starring a young but already legendary Joachim**** was a remarkable popular hit for a chamber work. Chamber works remained the core of her compositional output (and gained her two awards from the Institut de France), but she also produced works for orchestra – a number of overtures, and three symphonies. None of her symphonies were published – but all were performed, repeatedly, and internationally, which in its own right was a great success for a composer working in a crowded field.
Meanwhile, as a piano teacher at the Conservatoire – she held her Professorship for 30 years – she not only held her own against her male colleagues, she excelled them, rapidly becoming known for the brilliance of her pupils. Indeed, so exceptional was her teaching – supplemented by her composition – that she was even granted the unprecedented privilege of receiving (eventually) the same pay as would have been given to a man in her post. In her old age, after the death of her daughter and husband, she turned from composition to scholarship, in which area she was no less significant: she revived, not only in print but in concerts with her students, the 17th and 18th century piano repertoire, and published an influential work tackling the difficulties of the interpretation of early modern music – a scholarly and artistic approach to ‘Historically Informed Performance’ decades ahead of its time. Combining her virtuoso performances, her unchallenged status as France’s premier piano teacher, her truly innovative scholarly work, and her highly accomplished compositions, Farrenc can be considered one of the most important figures in French 19th century music.
In the decades after her death, however, her music was largely forgotten – French, female, and focused on chamber music was not a good combination for the late Victorian era – only rediscovered by feminist scholars in the late 20th century. To be brutally honest, no great violence was done to musical culture through her neglect: Farrenc was not an innovative or inspired composer. Nonetheless, her abilities should not be underestimated. Farrence, particularly in her chamber music, possessed absolutely solid craftsmanship, and admirable good taste, making her superior to the vast majority of composers; she simply lacked genius. As a result, she stands alongside an entire tranche of largely overlooked composers who were perfectly, even exceptionally capable, and who collectively wrote a great deal of attractive, sophisticated music, but who never stumbled onto their one, era-transcending hit, nor who possessed the spark of genius necessary to rise from “very good” to “great”.
Farrenc’s calling card as both performer and composer for many years was her pair of piano quintets: . As can be seen, the first and third movements are energetic, the second appropriately tender, and all is put together beyond any complaint. a really quite sweet and graceful trio adagio (Farrenc wrote trios for clarinet, cello and piano, in addition to the usual violin, cello and piano; she even wrote for the uniquely early-Romantic lineup of flute, cello and piano). The same taste and craftsmanship can be seen in piano works like or [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4I9M398z-g[/url]. [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZeYHeXnNdo[/url]This third symphony[/url] is naturally somewhat heavier than the chamber music, but still a pleasure to listen to, with considerable fire. All of these are accomplished works of music – if they were by Schubert, Schumann or Brahms, they’d be considered very nice little works from the back catalogue. But with Farrenc – with all of this class of composer – there is no ‘front catalogue’...
Louise Farrenc, then, is a valuable, yet inessential composer. To the extent that her fame is (from a small base) spreading, it’s because she’s a woman. Yet rather than seeing this as unfair to her similarly-accomplished male colleagues, perhaps she should be seen as an admittedly rather arbitrary exemplar of a class – a reminder that, when viewed on the scale of centuries, there are behind the ranks of the immortal composers a sizeable number of impressive, yet largely forgotten composers who were nonetheless key figures in their own eras, and who continue to leave a legacy that is, while optional, still of interest.
[Two other names are interesting to mention here as well, in passing. One is the most important female composer of the 20th century: Nadia Boulanger. That’s the answer to a trick question, because Boulanger is significant not for her own compositions, but for her influence as the century’s greatest teacher. Among the countless musicians trained by Boulanger were seminal American composers Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Philip Glass, George Antheil, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris, in addition to the British Sir Lennox Berkeley and Sir John Elliot Gardiner, alongside pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, legendary guitarist Narciso Yepes (perhaps the greatest guitarist of the 20th century), and father of the modern tango Ástor Piazzolla. Also, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, and, apparently, British female Muslim WWII war hero Noor Inayat Khan.
Montague Ring (1866-1956), on the other hand, was not particularly significant in history per se. She wrote forgettable parlour music – small, light suites, dances, and particularly love songs, suitable both for pop concerts and for amateur home performance, and while she may not have been important, she was successful in her day. Her real name was Amanda Aldridge, daughter of the great Ira Aldridge, making her one of the few examples of a 19th century successful black female composer; in addition to her composition, she worked as a teacher, where she inspired a generation of African-American classical and popular musicians, particularly singers (such as vaudeville star Roland Hayes and opera superstar Marian Anderson) – she also at times infused elements of African-American song into her own works.]
*Ignaz Moscheles, an influential and respected composer and virtuoso pianist, of a conservative disposition. A Jew, later in life he was one of the leaders of the anti-Wagner faction; he is best known today as the friend and mentor of the Mendelssohns (Felix and, relevant to this post, his sister Fanny, also a composer); he was also on good terms with the Schumanns (Robert and his composing wife, Clara); he played an important role in the reintroduction of music to the British Isles – Sullivan and Stanford both travelled to Leipzig to study at his conservatory. He may have invented the piano recital.
**Johann Nepomuk Hummel, an important composer and virtuoso pianist. Hummel was a child prodigy, famous for having been the pupil of Mozart (Mozart, recognising a fellow spirit, gave him lessons for free for two years, from the age of
, and the (as much as possible) friend of Beethoven, and briefly Schubert (they met at Beethoven’s funeral). His book on piano technique was a bestseller, and his pupil, Czerny, went on to be a noted paedagogue, and specifically the teacher of Liszt; he was also a major influence on Schumann and Chopin, and briefly taught Mendelssohn. Outside of music, he was notably a close friend of Goethe; he agitated for the introduction of musical copyright, and established a pension scheme for musicians. As a composer, he was famed in his day primarily for his piano and chamber music (and 22 operas!) – he combined Mozartian classical restraint with a Beethovinian urge to experiment – but he fell out of fashion soon after his death. In addition to his professional contacts with Louise Farrenc herself, he made her husband the sole publisher of his works.
***Anton Reicha, a significant composer and incredibly important scholar and teacher. As a composer, he’s best remembered for his wind quintets – he’s more or less the father of the genre – but his chief role in history is as music teacher to Berlioz, Liszt, Franck, Gounod and many others (and as well as Louise Farrenc, he also taught the singer and composer Pauline Viardot; Liszt declared Viardot the first female composer of genius, but Viardot eschewed full-time composition and wrote only a few works, mostly for teaching purposes). In many ways, Reicha was at least a century ahead of his time – alongside his detailed and unfashionable theories of counterpoint, he wrote on such subjects as microtonality, bitonality and polyrhythm, which his colleagues of his day were unable to understand. At times, he even incorporated some of these ideas into his music, which was noted for its technical complexity; his string quartets were an influence on Beethoven’s. However, Reicha’s fame as a composer was badly damaged by his aversion to allowing any sort of publication or performance of his work, which chiefly circulated among his students and other professional composers.
****Joseph Joachim, a Hungarian Jew, perhaps the most famous violinist after Paganini and one of the genuine megastars of the 19th century (and cousin of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grandmother, coincidentally). Began performing at 7 (when he left home to study in Vienna), but did not become internationally famous until 13, when he was acclaimed as the violinist of the century – by which point he had become the protégé of Mendelssohn. Later, he became a friend to the Schumanns, and friend and mentor to Brahms (it was Joachim who introduced Brahms and the Schumanns). Joachim is central to the history of the violin in the 19th century: of the five great 19th century violin concertos, Joachim was the first populariser of Beethoven’s (previously seen as barely playable), helped edit and revise and then gave the first performances of Bruch’s and Brahms’, and was studying with Mendelssohn when he composed his, before giving the second performance of it. [the fifth is Tchaikovsky’s]. The concertos of Schumann and Dvorak, probably next in line, were also written specifically for Joachim, though he never actually performed them. Unusually for a virtuoso, however, Joachim was also a great populariser of chamber music, through his Joachim Quartet, and his concerts alongside Clara Schumann. He also composed music although, aside from the most common cadenza to the Brahms, and an influential cadenza for the Beethoven, none is of great importance.