Louise Farrenc, 1804-1875: Composer, Performer, Scholar, by Bea Friedland. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980. 269 pp. ISBN 0-8357-1111-0.
Monographs about famous composers seem to appear every few weeks or so throughout the publishing field and rightly so. The composers are gifted men, and men of the arts seem to hold a romantic glamor for the general reading public. Biographies of women composers, however, have been very few and far between. Not since the slim volume Edith Borroff published on Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre in 1966 has a substantial work dealt with a woman composer. Surely this rarity is now reason enough for a literary fanfare, even if considerable musicological interest in the archives had not long since stimulated more and more study of all the kleine Meister of our musical heritage.
Bea Friedland, author of Louise Farrenc, 1804-1875: Composer, Performer, Scholar, makes no extravagant claims for her protagonist. She writes dispassionately that her study views Louise Farrenc
not simply as another minor figure in the annals of music history but as a woman, living and working in France during the first three-quarters of the past century, a wife and mother, of diffident, withdrawn temperament, imbued with artistic values at variance equally with the dominant tradition of French musical aesthetics, in its preoccupation with musique imitratrice, and the cultural mainstream of her own surroundings.
Yes, a "minor figure" in the musical works she published, but a major figure in the life of her times as a symphonist, performer, and teacher. In addition her work alone on the monumental anthology of piano literature, Le Tror des pianistes, would guarantee her a place in music history along with that of her husband Aristide Farrenc, music publisher par excellence.
Truthfully, France was even then becoming aware of a few of its gifted women and although the attitude did not help establish a place for Farrenc in the professions, it was reflected in the following passage that the critic Maurice Bourges quoted from La Beuyère of 1847.
People look upon a learned woman as a magnificent weapon: artistically wrought, admirably polished and of exquisite workmanship; it is a collectors item for exhibition to the curious, having no function, and which is useful neither for war nor the hunt—any more than is a riding-school horse, even the best-trained in the world.
Bourges calls that attitude reflective of a post-"barbarian" society and encourages a greater enlightenment in the present of his own time. He points out that Farrenc was not only "the first of her sex to write symphonies, but one whose symphonies a great many male composers would be proud to have written."
As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies!
Friedland has organized her book into two parts, a biography and a discussion of the music. In a further service to her readers, she has also appended a list of works and (a particular treasure) a thematic catalogue as well. There exists already a small discography, thanks to the recent interest shown in research for repertoire by women artists.
Louise Dumont Farrenc's father, Jacques-Edme Dumont the sculptor, was born in the Louvre in 1761. Louise herself was born at the Sorbonne. Their very birthplaces testify to the relationship of the arts in France to the French government. After the time of Henry IV, artists in the service of the current ruler had been awarded apartments in the palace. When the Louvre was renovated these families of artists were moved to other governmental buildings and then to the Sorbonne. Louise was the descendant of a long line of honored painters and sculptors. She chose, in spite of obvious talent in the visual arts, to involve herself in music. Friedland paints a most attractive picture of the gifted Dumont family and the life of the artistic community at the Sorbornne which nurtured the young musician. Playing at one of the community musicals, Louise met her future husband Aristide Farrenc, then a flutist about to start his own music publishing firm.
The story of their private and professional life together emerges in this book as one of the most successful marriages in history. Not all women composers (or men either, for that matter) were blessed with good domestic situations. Francesca Caccini (c. 1587-c. 1640) married a singer who resided with her only as long as she sang concerts with him. Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1664-1724) made her way both before marriage and after her husband's death as a performer. Nuns such as Isabella Leonarda (1625-1700) fared rather well in a convent but, of course, raised no families of their own. Clara Schumann (1819-1896) survived the sacrifice of her own gift for composition and played music by her gifted husband with great success. On the other hand the Frenchwoman Marguerite Canal (1891-1977) also married her publisher, but eventually divorced him and had to sue for possession of her own extensive catalogue of works. She won, but never composed again.
To return to the marriage of Louise and Aristide Farrenc, each one aided the other. Aristide took his wife's music everywhere he went as a publisher and helped her get more performances. She in turn seconded his life's project, the aforementioned Trésor, by teaching and performing the researched repertoire and after his death by publishing the remaining 11 volumes alone.
The husband's faith in his wife's talent is reflected in a number of documents that Friedland quotes, but never more convincingly confirmed than in a review by Robert Schumann written in 1836 about Farrenc's set of variations, Air russe varié, Opus 17, early in her career.
Were a young composer to submit to me variations such as these by L. Farrenc, I would praise him highly for the auspicious talent and fine training everywhere reflected in them. I soon learned the identity of the author—rather, authoress—the wife of the renowned music publisher in Paris, and I am distressed because it is hardly likely that she will ever hear of these encouraging lines. Small, neat, succinct studies they are . . . so sure in outline, so logical in development—in a word, so finished—that one must fall under their charm, especially since a subtle air of romanticism hovers over them.
And at this point, she had not yet begun to contribute to the genres of chamber music and symphony, where she was to make so strong an addition to the literature.
Part I, then, is a first-rate biography in seven chapters, carefully footnoted and unfailingly interesting. Friedland has a very good prose style, varied and largely free of academic pomp. She does not plead for her subject as a feminist might be tempted to do, but presents the facts of Farrenc's life so that her triumphs and her disappointments state their own case. Among the women of her time, this composer, performer, teacher, and editor seemed comparatively fortunate.
Part II, consisting of four more chapters, divides into discussions of the piano works, the chamber music, the symphonies, and an author's appraisal as epilogue.
In Chapter VII the author succeeds in pointing out salient elements of Farrenc's piano compositions in a prose style that more theorists could well imitate. Not only does Friedland focus on valid aspects, but she sets each point in an ambience of what better known composers were doing at the same time in order to show that Farrenc's musical individuality was an advance over her own previous preferences rather than the influence of contemporary composers she might be thought to resemble.
There is one problem with the physical make-up of the book itself. Examples 19 and 20 appear on the overpage after the discussion. As a consequence, they badly need the contrast of the composer's names in the identification. (Elsewhere the names of Beethoven and Bach appear in the titles of their excerpts. Why then in Example 20 is the name of Brahms missing?) This omission costs the casual reader a double turn but does not affect the total contribution.
This is an important book for scholars in historical musicology, in piano literature, and in women's studies. It illuminates our knowledge about the social role of women and other artists in France in the previous century as well as the public attitudes toward them. To our profession it will serve as a valuable piece of research well done; and to the general public it will serve to stimulate interest in other women composers without sounding any aggressive trumpets in the process. Too often when women attempt to share knowledge with each other, their tone becomes either strident or pedantic. Bea Friedland has voiced her information in a pleasing register so that we can all enjoy the composer Louise Farrenc, her contribution to the cultural life of her times, and her addition to our own musical repertoire of today.