About this Recording
8.574094 - FARRENC, L.: Symphony No. 1 / Overtures Nos. 1-2 / Grand Variations on a theme by Count Gallenberg (J. Muller, Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, König)
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Louise Farrenc (1804–1875)
Symphony No. 1 • Overtures, Opp. 23 & 24 • Grand Variations on a Theme by Count Gallenberg


Louise Farrenc (originally named Jeanne-Louise Dumont) was born in Paris on 31 May 1804 into a highly artistic family. Both her father, Jacques-Edme Dumont, and her brother, Auguste Dumont, were highly successful sculptors, as their predecessors had also been. She became renowned throughout France and beyond as a pianist, teacher and composer, having studied piano initially with Cécile Soria (who had herself studied with Clementi), and later with Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

At the age of 15, she began to take composition lessons, apparently unofficially, with the professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, Anton Reicha (1770–1836), but on her marriage to her fellow student, the flautist Aristide Farrenc, two years later, gave up her studies in order to travel round France giving concerts with him. Tiring of this, they subsequently founded a publishing house, Éditions Farrenc, which became one of the best-known music publishers in France. They produced 23 volumes of music for piano and harpsichord covering a vast chronological span, entitled Le Trésor des pianistes, and Farrenc also published an important book dealing with performing early music. She also resumed her studies with Reicha, and began touring as a virtuoso concert pianist. In 1842 she was appointed as professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, a position she held until 1873. She died in Paris on 15 September 1875.

While Farrenc’s work as a composer suffered undue neglect for a considerable time after her death, and while there is much still to be discovered about her life and music, in recent years her compositions have come once again to be recognised and performed. Initially, she wrote only for piano, but she subsequently expanded her range considerably to include chamber and orchestral music. Her Nonet, Op. 38, for wind and strings, brought her such recognition that she was able to demand that the Paris Conservatoire pay her the same as her male colleagues. She was twice awarded the Prix Chartier by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in 1861 and 1869.

Farrenc wrote her Symphony No. 1 in 1841, and two further symphonies in 1845 and 1847, and they can all be considered significant contributions to the symphonic literature of this period. In fact, the third was a huge success, its first performance at the Conservatoire in 1849 being talked about for years afterwards. Her husband was greatly supportive of her work, and endeavoured to have the symphonies performed in Germany. The First Symphony certainly strongly proclaims its ancestry in the German symphonic tradition, especially Beethoven, and in fact the very beginning of the Andante sostenuto which opens the energetic first movement brings him immediately to mind, but Farrenc was no mere imitator. This is music of tremendous accomplishment, with a clear sense of purpose, demonstrating not only a notable talent for orchestration but a very personal melodic style, most notably in the second movement, Adagio cantabile, and the third, the Menuetto Moderato. While the Finale is a fiery Allegro of which Beethoven would certainly have been proud, the lyrical quality of her work is more suggestive of Mendelssohn, or Schumann (who was, in fact, a great admirer of her piano music).

The Overtures, No. 1 in E minor and No. 2 in E flat major, were both written in 1834, and like the First Symphony of seven years later, they are works of tremendous drama. Indeed, one can only imagine what Farrenc might have achieved had she ever set herself to writing an opera, so clearly does the (unknown) narrative come through. (She did, in fact, have ambitions to write an opera, but they came to nothing; the closest thing surviving is a ‘scène dramatique’, Le Prisonnier de guerre.) While, once again, there is no lack of lyricism in these Overtures, both works are swept along by the composer’s formidable sense of the power of drama, pitting different instrumental groups against each other and demonstrating a sure instinct for exploiting textural contrasts. If anything, the Overture in E flat major moves even further in this direction than that in E minor; the rhythmic ‘stutter’ at the very beginning already brings hints of dark and momentous tragedy; its sudden movement away from E flat to D major in the central development section is as unexpected as it is effective. No less a figure than Berlioz was one of those who took note of her talent as an orchestrator in this work.

The Grand Variations on a Theme by Count Gallenberg, written immediately after the Overture in E flat major, are rather different in character. Certainly they are dramatic, but their real objective is to provide a showcase for the solo pianist’s virtuosity. Count Gallenberg (Wenzel Robert von Gallenberg, 1783–1839) was an Austrian composer who specialised in ballet music, and who married Beethoven’s pupil Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the dedicatee of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata of 1802. As is so often the case with sets of variations, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Gallenberg’s original theme, but it is what Farrenc does with it that is interesting. Indeed, she wrote a large number of sets of variations, including works on themes by Rossini, Bellini, Weber, Donizetti and Onslow. She used the form as a vehicle for all the elegance and technical display of which she was capable—as one would expect of a work with the word ‘Grand’ in its title—but also once again discovered a rich seam of lyricism; in fact, this lyricism only increases as the variations reach their conclusion.

Ivan Moody

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