Skip to main content

 Interview, Laurence Equilbey on Louise Farrenc

Laurence EquilbeyIn the wake of releasing the first volume of her planned complete cycle of Louise Farrenc's symphonic music, which I wrote about earlier in the month as a Recording of the Week, I was lucky enough to be able to speak to conductor Laurence Equilbey about Farrenc, and explore more about the context in which she lived and worked.

This interview was originally conducted in French via email. Translation: David Smith

This album is the first volume in a planned complete set of Farrenc’s symphonic works. Where did the idea for this cycle first come from?

Farrenc’s music is not “just” the work of a female composer who we’ve rediscovered; it’s a genuine link in the history of music in general, and of French music. In Farrenc we find a melting-pot of complexities: Female composers, the French symphony in the early and mid-nineteenth century (aside from the path taken by Berlioz), cultural cross-pollinations between Germany and France…

Today, the interest lies in restoring these key works to their proper place, offering an interpretation that fits into our historical narrative, and exploring her complete symphonic output, as we are intending to do later with Fanny Mendelssohn and Emilie Mayer.

You mention plans to incorporate into this series works by her female contemporaries Schumann, Mendelssohn and Mayer. How much evidence is there that these composers met and influenced one another?

I don’t honestly know whether these composers ever encountered one another, or how much they would have been aware of one another’s work. It’s important to bear in mind the fact that the works of female composers have been relatively poorly disseminated compared to those of their male counterparts, so they would presumably have been primarily influenced by their male contemporaries whose reputation was more established.

On the other hand, one thing that we do know is that Clara Schumann went to Paris several times, first and foremost in the course of her performing tours, as well as a visit in 1839 with the purpose of gaining the legal authorisation to marry Robert without the approval of her father. It’s possible that she could have met Louise Farrenc on this occasion, but there does not seem to be any proof. She also went to Leipzig, where she could have met the Mendelssohn family; and in the final decades of her life she could have met Emilie Mayer in Berlin. But there again, we have hypotheses but no evidence.

Farrenc lived at a time when French tastes regarded the symphony as an inherently German genre, with wordless music considered incompatible with French aesthetics. What was the reasoning behind this mindset and how did it arise?

I don’t know if we can quite say that wordless music was seen as incompatible with the French aesthetic; it’s more that opera enjoyed such success that it surpassed all the other genres. It was perhaps a more “charismatic” style of music, since it involved words, singers, sets… and also because of where it was performed (the theatre was a place that was at once artistic and worldly).

In this context, the Conservatoire’s Société des Concerts would have seemed a rather austere institution to a number of music-lovers – one went there solely to listen to music, and what’s more it was music that was sometimes audacious and almost experimental (as for example Beethoven’s symphonies).

Given this trend in her own country, do we know anything about why Farrenc chose to go against the grain and explore orchestral composition?

For me, it comes down to her personality and those who were around her. It seems Farrenc was quite a discreet person; I don’t see her fighting to get an opera performed, struggling with the opera directors, singers, orchestra and so on.

She probably acquired the taste for orchestral music from her teachers, notably Reicha, but also from her fellow professors at the Conservatoire. Her chamber works, incidentally, are dedicated to those same fellow professors, and she used to play the piano when they performed them together.

Given the close link between the Conservatoire and the Société des Concerts, it’s easy to imagine Farrenc being tempted to write for the orchestra, encouraged both by her husband and by her connection to the musicians.

In Farrenc’s era, orchestral instruments were considered largely a male domain, which is partly why she studied the piano as her own main instrument. What was considered so different about the piano that made it more “acceptable” for study by women?

There are many answers. The first is that in the nineteenth century, society was particularly sharply divided between the public and private sphere. Men operated in the public sphere, and women were essentially seen as belonging to the private. The piano was an essential element of a “good family” and, since it was a domestic instrument, formed part of the private sphere. Learning the piano was almost compulsory among young girls from good families.

The second factor is that the posture necessary for playing the piano corresponds to the way women presented themselves in the nineteenth century. For reasons of propriety and also psychological reasons. There was a lot of discussion at that time about instruments “adapted” for women; for instance, certain “specialists” expressed their concerns about the effects of the harp’s resonating body on women’s chests, others considered that holding a violin, with the left arm elevated, was not proper (and all the more so because the tension in the raised arm could distort the chest…) And of course, the playing of wind instruments, which involves holding something on or in the mouth, was not socially acceptable.

So in sum, the piano was an instrument that was associated with the milieu in which women lived, and one which, through its “appropriate” posture, was compatible with the image that women had to present.

In addition to Farrenc’s career as a composer and professor, she and her husband also seem to have pioneered the idea of reviving older music and performing it in a historically-informed way. Should we also be regarding her as one of the first trailblazers of the early music movement?

Absolutely. The Farrencs consulted and collected a great number of sources, and Louise Farrenc made use of them simultaneously as a scholar and as a performer. Over and above the work of merely “dusting off” these works, she seems to have been genuinely taken with early music, which would explain the important place she reserves for it in her impressive Trésor des pianistes. We should also note that Louise Farrence was the author of a Traité des abréviations, that is to say ornamentation; here her pedagogical side is combined with her interests in scholarship and performance.

1871 in France saw an abrupt turning-away from Germanic influences as part of a reaction to a shock military defeat by Prussia. Did this affect how Farrenc’s music was regarded after her death?

It’s hard to say… It does seem that Farrenc’s symphonic music was already being forgotten only a few years after her death. She seems to have been remembered essentially as just a teacher and professor, before her music was rediscovered in the 1970s (by the efforts of Bea Friedland among others). I don’t know if Farrenc’s music was associated with the German tradition at this time; I’d imagine rather that people preferentially turned towards those composers who claimed to be creating a “typically French” sound; that wasn’t something Farrenc was interested in.

Insula Orchestra, Laurence Equilbey

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC