Written by: Braeden Weyhrich
Louise Farrenc, born Jeanne-Louise Dumont, came from a long line of creative people. Several of her female relatives were royal painters, and her brother was Prix de Rome-winning sculptor Auguste Dumont. She showed talent in the arts at an early age, and possessed professional-level piano skills by the time she was a teenager. At age 15, she became a composition student of Anton Reicha at the Paris Conservatory. As a woman, she was forbidden from enrolling in traditional composition classes, so she took private lessons with Reicha to circumvent this rule.
About two years after beginning her formal studies, Farrenc married fellow Conservatory student Aristide Farrenc, a flautist and music publisher. She ended her lessons with Reicha to travel France and perform with Aristide. After they finished touring, Aristide formed the world-famous Farrenc Éditions publishing house, while Louise re-enrolled in lessons with Reicha to further expand her compositional knowledge.
Farrenc was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842, a post she held until she retired in 1873. She was only the second female professor to teach at the Conservatory, but only taught piano, as women were still not allowed to be formally involved in composition within the school. She advocated for equal pay for women long before it was mainstream, writing a letter to Conservatory director Daniel Auber requesting to be paid the same as her male counterparts for similar work (a request that he accepted, due in part to Auber’s great respect for her as a musician and teacher). In 1843, the Farrencs’ daughter Victorine, who had already been studying piano with her mother, began attending the Conservatory. In both Brussels and Paris, Victorine performed Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto alongside the resident orchestras as the opening act to their performances of her mother’s Symphony No. 1. Unfortunately, Victorine never gained as much popularity as her parents due to her comparatively short life; a rare disease killed her at the age of 32 in 1859.
As both a performer and composer, Farrenc was known for venturing outside the musical norm. While other pianists sought the most flashy and virtuosic pieces to wow their audiences, Farrenc enjoyed studying and performing Beethoven’s later and lesser-known piano sonatas. She never wrote an opera, the most popular genre of her time, opting instead for instrumental chamber music. She liked writing abstract music with set forms like sonatas or symphonies, rather than trying to tell a story or paint a picture. Farrenc didn’t care to become famous, but rather to teach music to others and create it herself.
Farrenc is best known as a composer for her chamber music output, having written a large collection of pieces for solo piano as well as a nonet for string quartet plus wind quintet, a string quartet, and several piano trios, among others. She also wrote two concert overtures and three symphonies. One of her best-known contributions is Le trésor des pianistes, a collection of keyboard music that she edited and compiled. This collection was the product of research on 17th- and 18th- century harpsichord and virginal music that she worked on with her husband Aristide until his death. She continued the project alone after that, not only publishing the collection but performing the works with her students in a concert series they called séances historiques. Farrenc was responsible, through Le trésor, for increasing the appreciation of and knowledge about earlier keyboard pieces that had gone largely unknown prior to her work.
Farrenc died in 1875, and performances of her music generally stopped. Her music was overlooked for over 100 years, until a recent interest in performing and researching works by women composers led to the rediscovery of her music. She left behind a legacy of breaking boundaries and educating a generation of pianists, all while creating and sharing beautiful music.
- Friedland, Bea. “Farrenc family.” Oxford Music Online. January 20, 2001. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.09336.
- Friedland, Bea. “Louise Farrenc.” In Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Edited by James R. Briscoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. https://publish.iupress.indiana.edu/read/historical-anthology-of-music-by-women/section/1a3b7bb7-87d8-4b8d-86a6-55a9bdf9d9cc#ch17.
- “Louise Farrenc.” Naxos Records. Accessed June 29, 2021. https://www.naxos.com/person/Louise_Farrenc/58351.htm.
- Sherman, Barney. “In 1840, she wrote the All Things Considered theme: Louise Farrenc & How Female Genius Can Flourish.” Iowa Public Radio. September 4, 2015. https://www.iowapublicradio.org/show/classical-music-with-barney-sherman/2015-09-04/in-1840-she-wrote-the-all-things-considered-theme-louise-farrenc-how-female-genius-can-flourish.