Thursday 14 December 2017

Classical: Female composer who made music against the odds

Louise Farrenc: French composer.
Louise Farrenc: French composer.

George Hamilton

International Women's Day during the week trained a spotlight on the contribution women have made to the canon of classical music. Given historical social circumstances, you mightn't have expected much, but you'd be surprised.

There's a long line stretching back to Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun, who wrote songs to be sung at devotions, and is reckoned to be the first female to have made a musical impact.

I'd never heard of Louise Farrenc until I turned on the radio last Tuesday.

There she was, represented by a symphony, no less, like Mozart's great 40th, in G minor.

This Symphony No 3 is a terrific creation, delivering the exuberance, the excitement, and the gentle reflective edge that, say, a Schumann would provide.

It's of the same era and was first performed in 1849.

Beautifully structured, totally unselfconscious, if you heard it and didn't know who'd written it, you'd assume maybe a youthful Brahms, or Mendelssohn.

Louise Farrenc's story is an incredible tale.

She was the daughter of a sculptor, born in Paris in 1804, and brought up in the Latin Quarter around the Sorbonne.

Louise was talented, and when this became obvious, no expense was spared in getting her the best of teachers - the Czech pianist, Ignaz Moscheles, one of the top virtuosi of the time, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who'd roomed as a student with Mozart and was one of the foremost composers for the keyboard.

She even had lessons from Anton Reicha, who taught at the Paris Conservatoire, despite the fact that the composition class at the time was only open to men.

She did subsequently break through the glass ceiling, becoming the conservatory's only female professor, where she demanded, and eventually got pay parity with her male colleagues.

Louise Farrenc struck out on her own as a composer as well. Her move from the piano pieces that were her stock-in-trade into larger scale productions didn't follow French fashion where everybody who was anybody was writing opera.

She boldly followed the German model, and developed not one but three full-blown symphonies.

This brought its own problems, for France, with no repertoire and little interest in the form, didn't have the big symphony orchestras that were everywhere in German-speaking Europe.

It was hard to get her music played.

Louise herself would organise soirées where she would play and feature some of her own piano compositions.

With the symphonies, it was a different story.

She had to wait until somebody, somewhere sat up and took notice, as was the case with her third which was picked up for its premiere by the Conservatory orchestra, the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire.

Her contemporary, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix's elder sister, may have been better treated by posterity because of that famous surname.

By virtue of the fact that she lived well into the 20th century, Cécile Chaminade got a better shot at lasting fame.

Chances are Louise Ferranc had written an opera, she'd have been better remembered, but that's not to say her music was unregarded. Quite the contrary in fact.

Schumann had applauded the "auspicious talent" that was evident in her pieces for piano.

When she died in 1875, The New York Times obituary spoke of "a musician and composer of considerable distinction". Louise Farrenc fully deserves to be on our playlist.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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