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Louise Farrenc, Symphony No. 3

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2022–23 subscription concert "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Louise Farrenc portrait.png

As a pianist, pedagogue, and composer, Louise Farrenc was one of the most prominent musicians in mid-19th-century France. She was the only woman appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory in all of the 19th century, a position she held for 30 years. Her music received praise from Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and many a Parisian critic. And she composed three exceptional symphonies decades before her compatriots César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns made homegrown symphonies a point of pride in France.


So why do many of today's music lovers have no idea who Farrenc is? And why did her magnificent symphonies — equal to those of Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn in terms of structural precision and melodic beauty — lie in the shadows of obscurity for more than 150 years?


Of course, the primary culprit is the systemic sexism and misogyny long upheld by the classical musical establishment — including her alma mater, the Paris Conservatory, which didn't allow women to study composition until 1870. (Farrenc was only permitted to study piano when she entered the Conservatory at 15, though her parents arranged for private studies with Anton Reicha, the school's head of composition.) Even after the Conservatory appointed Farrenc professor of piano in 1842, she could only accept female students into her studio, was barred from teaching composition, and received a salary less than that of the school's male professors. Farrenc had to wage a seven-year campaign to receive income parity — a battle she won after the triumphant premiere of her Nonet for winds and strings.


Nevertheless, she persisted. Farrenc became well known among Parisian musical circles for a wealth of solo piano and chamber works, and was twice awarded the Prix Chartier of the Académie des Beaux-Arts for her contributions to French chamber music. But when it came to her large-scale symphonic music — three symphonies and two concert overtures — gender wasn't Farrenc's only obstacle.


For starters, French audiences simply didn't care for orchestral music. Only grand opera, vaudeville acts, and chamber music for candlelit salons were en vogue. The small sect of people in Paris who wanted to hear symphonies were interested in those of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.


There were also tremendous economic barriers at play. With few Parisian ensembles programming symphonies, composers had to self-produce performances of their work, assembling an orchestra of freelancers at great expense. And the one group in town regularly performing new symphonies, the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, always paired those works with a Beethoven symphony, inviting direct comparisons with the German colossus.


Farrenc was wise to these obstacles — and savvy enough to know how to use them to her advantage. To stand any chance of having her symphonies heard, Farrenc knew she had to appeal to audience tastes and stick to the traditions of the Austro-German symphony. That approach paid off when, in 1849, the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire premiered her Third Symphony, programmed alongside — wait for it — Beethoven's Fifth.


But Farrenc was far too talented a composer to merely imitate symphonies of the early 19th-century symphony — which evolved from Mozart's Classical charms into the stormy Romanticism of Beethoven and Schumann. Despite being forced to color within those traditional lines, Farrenc projected her singular voice through a gift for melodic invention, a knack for building musical momentum, and a well-honed approach to orchestration that mirrored the profound intimacy of her chamber music.


The opening movement introduces many of Farrenc's hallmarks. Instead of beginning with a grand chord from the full orchestra, or immediately stating the movement's first theme, Farrenc sets the scene with the melancholy sigh of a solo oboe, a snippet of nebulous melody echoed briefly by hushed strings. Just as mysteriously as it began, Farrenc's slow introduction vanishes — after just six measures of music — replaced by jumpy figurations in the violins that introduce a new tempo and beat pattern. The music seethes as the strings become increasingly restless, plunging us into the movement's main theme, expressed in roaring octaves by the full string body.


With the movement's groove firmly established, new colors and characters emerge from every corner of the orchestra. Buoyant rhythms abound, with off-beat trills and sudden accents adding energetic kicks. The chamber-like transparency of Farrenc's orchestration is paramount, with small groups of woodwinds often getting the spotlight, their elegant chorales supported by plucky pizzicato in the strings. And in the absence of bright trumpets and trombones — just two horns serve as the entire brass section — our ears get to know the symphony's primary sonorities: warm strings, burnished woodwinds, and thundering timpani.


The Adagio cantabile, too, eschews any pomp and circumstance at its opening — instead, it gently blossoms like one of Mozart's wistful wind serenades. A solo clarinet takes the lead, singing enchanting melodies over a bed of bassoons and horns before handing them off to the violins. This is music of pastoral peace that grows from the solo shepherd's opening phrase to a ravishing moment at the heart of the movement, when the lush sounds of the full orchestra invoke the mighty resonance of a pipe organ.


The symphony's Scherzo begins with rapid-fire strings — like a menacing swarm of hornets, the first violins buzzing higher and higher across their strings with the offbeat trills and accents we came to love in the first movement. Shimmering scales in the violins propel the music skyward, taking us away from the dangerous hornet's nest and upwards to experience the radiance of an expansive, cloudless sky. The warm Alpine sounds of the French horns and woodwinds dominate the tuneful central section, with a series of playful scales ascending and descending in the plucked violins. The merriment doesn't last long, however — sighs from oboes and bassoons signal the return of storm clouds, bringing us back to the movement's forbidding opening.


By the time we reach the Finale, we feel right at home with Farrenc's inventions: the powerful octaves in the strings return for the opening statement, giving way to more melancholy laments from solo winds, exhilarating trills and accents, and waterfalls of cascading scales in the strings. Alternating between thick and gossamer textures, the movement rushes forward breathlessly, leading to a feverish central section that pits strings against woodwinds in a fight for domination, punctuated by the timpani's dramatic heft. Snippets of the verdant scenes heard in the second and third movements return just as quickly as they recede, giving way to a restatement of the movement's opening string octaves. Now with ever-growing intensity and momentum, the music rushes forward until we arrive at the dramatic, declamatory final chords that bring this underperformed gem of a symphony to a resounding close.

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