Symphony No. 3 in G Minor, op. 36

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            Until recently Farrenc has been practically unknown to symphonic audiences—especially in this country--but in her time she was held in high regard in the first half of the nineteenth century in France.  Unlike so many women composers of the past, she suffered little obscurity during her lifetime.   She evinced immense talent early on as a pianist, and after study with some of the most august teachers, began a career as performer and composer while in her teens.  By the age of thirty-eight she was appointed a professor of piano at the prestigious Paris Conservatory, and had a long and distinguished career.   All the while she was a busy composer, working in all major genres except opera.  Understandably, her early compositional efforts, beginning in the 1820s, focused primarily upon the piano.  Subsequently, she turned her efforts to chamber music. The latter are considered her best works and they enjoyed substantial recognition.  Early on she did produce two overtures for orchestra, and they are well-conceived, dynamic, and convincing works.  Only somewhat later, in the 1840s, did she compose her three symphonies.

           We must remember that opera was the far-preferred genre in nineteenth-century France, and the decades before and around the middle of the century were totally dominated by “French Grand Opera.”  The most celebrated composers were Meyerbeer (from whom Wagner stole many of his ideas), Auber, Halévy, and Rossini (for his William Tell).   Every night the Paris Opera presented these large, long, spectacular operas--operas that the more violent, sordid, and colorfully and elaborately staged, the better.   And the vivid action on the stage was supported in the orchestra pit by virtuoso performers (usually professors from the Paris Conservatory) performing exciting scores.  Scores that featured new instruments such as valved trumpets and horns, the bass clarinet, the English horn, and others—as well as an immoderate use of the piccolo.  And yet, there was little interest or activity in symphonic music in the France of that time.  Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, while immensely popular today, in no way was representative of contemporary French interest in the symphony.  And that situation lasted into well later in the century.

            The leading symphonic composers of Farrenc’s time were, then, primarily Germans:  Mendelssohn and Schumann in the fore.   Beethoven and Schubert had died while she was a student and young professional, and their model was undoubtedly influential.  But her  “symphonic contemporaries” were the former, and whose works provide an interesting context for her efforts.  The great efflorescence of symphony composition of the later nineteenth century by composers such as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Franck, Dvořák, and others, was yet to come.   

            Farrenc composed her third symphony in 1847, and the record shows that she heard it performed at least in 1849 by the Société des concerts du Conservatoire.  She was lucky at that, for there were few opportunities in the Paris of the times for anyone’s symphonic music to be performed.  By that time she probably had the opportunity to hear most of Mendelssohn’s orchestra music and at least two of Schumann’s symphonies, and perhaps a third.  

            Farrenc did not stray far from the usual models in her third and last symphony:  first movement in a variant of sonata form, lyrical second movement, scherzo for the third, and an energetic finale.   She did eschew the temptation to lard the orchestra withthe growing, heavy orchestration of the times, conservatively using only the standard woodwind octet, two horns, timpani, and strings (no trumpets!).  She thus scored for lighter resources than did usually her German contemporaries.

            The first movement is a substantial one, opening with a soft, slow introduction that very quickly leads to the intense allegro.  It’s an intense, darkly dancing affair that is redolent of Mozart’s serioso G minor works.  Busy, jittering strings gradually crescendo with the timpani into to the leaping first theme.  There are more than a few themes in the movement to divert, but of interest is the composer’s adroit mastery of featured woodwind color, her use of rhythmic displacements and syncopations that would do justice to a Schumann or a Brahms, and a bold harmonic imagination typical of the early Romantic period.  The extended development methodically works its way through all the material, but not in the typical fragmented way that palpably creates instability.  The recap dutifully does its job, setting all the keys right, followed by a brief coda.  It must be said that the style of the coda does rather surprisingly seem to come out of nowhere, but it nevertheless serves well, emphatically bringing the close.

            The second movement is a lovely aria, led by the solo clarinet, sustained by soft horns and “throbbing” timpani.  All have their opportunities with the material, with the bucolic atmosphere interspersed from time to time with more powerful, dynamic contrasts.   It can be argued that the spirit of Beethoven’s slow movements seems to be peering over it all.  The third movement scherzo begins almost demonically in its rhythmic intensity, and maintains that drive even in the contrasting moves to major tonalities.  Nevertheless, throughout Farrenc shows her complete command of the light, gossamer textures of the well-known scherzos of Berlioz and Mendelssohn.  The usual contrasting middle section is a showcase for sostenuto woodwind colors, evidence of her experience in composing chamber music, perhaps.

            While last symphonic movements traditionally can frequently be somewhat lighter in nature, and end in the major, rather than minor, key—not so here.  Farrenc chose to imbue this movement with dramatic heft.  It is as if she dared any misogynous  critics to drag out the old bromide, “it sounds very masculine.”   So, no typical frisky little rondo and a happy ending in the major key.  Rather, she uses the typical sonata form of a first movement, with a multiplicity of intense themes, interlarded with sizzling scales and dramatic pauses.   To this add, adventuresome forays into rather distant keys, her imaginative woodwind scoring, solid counterpoint in the development, and an economical, but intense drive to the passionate end.  It’s temping to credit the whole to her experience as a performer and her musical life in Paris, surrounded by blood and thunder operas.

             Louise Farrenc obviously was not only a gifted pianist, pedagogue, and composer, but with this powerful work as evidence, she most certainly must have been a formidable personality.  Her extensive oeuvre is a welcome addition to an expanding canon of worthy nineteenth-century compositions.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan