By Sarah Baer

We are remembering the life and work of French composer, pianist, and educator Louise Farrenc.  This is fitting not just because her birthday is May 31 (she would be 219 this year), but because WPA Publishing has released new editions of two of her fantastic symphonies.

Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont on May 31, 1804 in Paris into an artistic family – her father and brother were both sculptors – she began musical studies at a very young age. Her first piano teacher, Cecile Soria, was a student of Muzio Clementi. When her virtuosic talent was made clear, she continued studies with Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel. At the age of fifteen her parents granted her permission to begin composition lessons with Anton Reicha, who was then the composition instructor at the Paris Conservatory. But, note: she was only permitted private lessons as women were still prohibited from enrolling in composition courses at the time. (Violinist Camille Urso was the first female student admitted to the Paris Conservatory, and that was in 1869.)

Farrenc was married in 1821 to flutist Aristide Farrenc, who was enthusiastically supportive of his wife’s career. This is remarkable as it was often not the case for women composers in the 19th century. The couple toured together in the early years of their marriage, performing as a flute-piano duo throughout Europe. After touring became exhausting, Aristide opened a publishing company in Paris, which became one of France’s leading music publishers. Aristide and Louise worked together to edit, preserve, and publish historic music that might have otherwise fallen into obscurity.

Even after settling in Paris, Farrenc’s reputation as a performer became so renowned that she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory – the only woman to hold such a position throughout the 19th century. After many years of fighting the inequities she experienced while employed at the Conservatory, Farrenc was awarded equal pay to her male counterparts before the end of her teaching career. Reportedly, her request was granted after the performance of her Nonet, which was considered to be among the most exceptional pieces of its time. Learn more about how she fought and won for equity in this great video from the 92nd Street Y:

Farrenc, in addition to teaching, editing, and performing, was composing – whether it was small works for piano, chamber ensemble, or full orchestra. Her music received high praise from critics, including Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

She completed three symphonies in her lifetime, quite a distinction not only because women were often discouraged from large forms, but because the symphony itself was not a popular genre in Paris at the time. Opera was considered king of musical forms, and though Farrenc actively sought to compose one, she was never able to secure a libretto from which to work.

WPA Publishing is thrilled to be able to offer new editions of Farrenc’s Symphony No. 1, op. 32 and Symphony No. 3, op. 36.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 32 was completed in 1841, but would not be premiered until 1845. Though Farrenc used all of her resources to try to secure an earlier performance in her home city, the premiere took place on February 23, 1845 in Brussels. Reviews of the event were favorable, but the most important praise came from the conductor himself. François-Joseph Fétis was originally quite skeptical of performing the work, but was convinced of its merit after the first rehearsal. He says of the symphony,

“after having produced such a work, Madame Farrenc has won the right to be placed among the most distinguished composers of the present day.”

Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, op. 36, was completed in 1847 and finally premiered by the Société des concerts du Conservatoire in 1849; also on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Henri Blanchard, music critic and as well as another student of Reicha’s, commented publicly about the unfairness of this programming, effectively having the premiere of Farrenc’s work immediately compared to what is considered to be one of the greatest symphonies ever written. However, critical reception was in general rather positive. Blanchard, himself, said Farrenc was:

“one who, without scholastic pedantry, reveals – alone in her sex, throughout musical Europe – genuine learning united with grace and taste.”

These two works are experiencing a revival in recent years, and for good reason. Beautiful, engaging, and accessible, they pair well with classical and romantic works as Farrenc walked the line between the two eras. The conservative scoring makes the pieces easy for large and small ensembles to perform, and the historical importance cannot be overstated.

To learn more about Farrenc’s symphonies, read this wonderful thesis by J. Cameron Stephenson, in which all of her symphonies – and especially her Second Symphony – are discussed in detail.

Have a listen to the two Symphonies on Spotify: