Composer, pianist, teacher and scholar, Jeanne-Louise Dumont Farrenc had the good fortune to be born in 1804 into an artistic and bohemian Parisian family of talented painters and sculptors. Part of a larger community of distinguished artistic families, all of whom lived together at the Sorbonne, Louise was exposed to the Latin Quarter’s exciting liberal cultural life and many successful female role models. Displaying musical talent from an early age, she studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Neoponk Hummel. At the age of fifteen, her parents allowed her to study privately with Anton Reicha, a renowned composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory.
At a concert given at the Sorbonne, Louise met flautist Aristide Farrenc who was ten years her senior. They married in 1821, and, briefly interrupting her studies with Reicha, they performed concerts throughout France. Aristide soon tired of this life, though, and the couple returned to Paris where he opened Éditions Farrenc, which was to become one of the country’s leading music publishers.
Shy and serious, Louise Farrenc continued her studies with Reicha and, encouraged by her husband, returned to a concert career in the 1830s. By 1842, her growing reputation gained her an appointment as a permanent Professor of Music at the Paris Conservatory, a position she held for thirty years. She was the only female professor at the Conservatory in the 19th century but for the first ten years of her tenure, her salary was always less than that of her male counterparts.
Following the successful premiere of her Nonette in 1858, with the young Joseph Joachim performing, she demanded and finally received equal pay.
Louise’s marriage to Aristide, meanwhile, proved to be a perfect blend of interests and talents. Together, they became ardent advocates and researchers of early music. Their studies culminated in Le Trésor des Pianistes, a 23-volume anthology of 300 years of harpsichord and piano music, completed by Louise several years after her husband’s death in 1865.
Louise Farrenc’s early compositions for the piano in the 1820s and 1830s received warm praise from Robert Schumann. He admired “the auspicious talent and fine training everywhere reflected in them.”
She soon turned to chamber music, which became her first love. For the next twenty years, she composed four piano trios, two piano quintets, a cello sonata, two violin sonatas, a Sextet and the Nonet. In 1861 and 1869, she was awarded the Chartier Prize presented by the Académie des Beaux-Arts for her contributions to chamber music.
Paris critics were as impressed with her orchestral works, particularly her Symphony #3 in G minor, from 1849. Three years after its premiere, they were still writing of this “strong and spirited work in which the brilliance of the melodies contends with the variety of the harmony.”
Louise Farrenc died in Paris on September 25th, 1875 at the age of 72. The New York Times published an obituary that day, describing her as “a musician and composer of considerable distinction in the generation immediately preceding the present one.” After her death, her music passed into oblivion until recently, when new interest in women composers is beginning to uncover these long forgotten works
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