Her final symphony is one that deserves your attention and is now performed more often. John Banther and James Jacobs discuss the challenges she faced with sexism and the French attitude towards symphonies at the time, what to listen for, influences, and her unique orchestration. 

Show Notes

Performances of Farrenc's Symphony No. 3 and Nonet

Mikko Franck conducts l'Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France

Kevin Geraldi conducts the Minerva Chamber Ensemble



John Banther : I'm John Banther and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's, James Jacobs, and we're talking all about the symphony No 3 by Louise Farrenc. She was a French composer and pianist, and her final Symphony No 3 is a work that deserves your attention. James and I get into the challenges and expectations she faced, the musical details, and what makes this symphony stand out.


John Banther : Plus stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. Louise Farrenc wrote three symphonies in the 1840s, and we're going to talk about the third one. It's one that has been performed very little, like the others, and although it's being played more now, it's still seldom being performed. It doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page, but it is a fantastic work that absolutely deserves your attention. So we're going to guide you through some of our favorite moments background on the symphony, and more. But first, just a little bit about Farrenc. She was born in 1804, died in 1875. French composer. She was an extraordinary pianist, a piano professor at the Paris Conservatory for 30 years, where she was also writing and premiering music, but she was not being paid the same as her male counterparts for the first, I think, half of her tenure there. And then after some more performances and premieres of her works, they could not ignore her demands any longer to be paid equally. So she did have more of a reputation as this pianist than a composer early on. And there was a lot stacked against her, right? With of course not just sexism, but the state of music at the time in France. A big focus on virtuosic, small chamber music, and big grand opera. Symphonies were not very popular of course at this time. So we don't have a lot of symphonies from French composers, and that was against her as well, because as a woman, she could play the piano and she could perform, and she could write music, but writing big symphonies was something that was seen as more, it was not looked well upon. Was it?


James Jacobs: No, it wasn't. It's interesting because I was thinking about this because I'm of a certain age right now and I've seen some cycles in my time. And it's interesting, like right now, I see the kids just discovering music of the sixties and seventies, and I see certain trends in fashion come back and entertainment. And this was the case in France as well in the mid 19th century where the hot composer was Beethoven. 20 years after he died, and yet they seemed to be just discovering him. And so, that's when Parisians went to an orchestral concert in the 1840s, they expected to hear a Beethoven symphony and other Germanic music from the early part of the century.

And so, if you're a composer who's trying to write a work that on that program to compliment the Beethoven symphony, you were expected to basically write music in that same ilk. That same genre, that's a huge step backwards. Remember at this time we'd already had Berlioz, we'd already had Chopin, we'd already had Schumann. So composers didn't really want to take that step back, but if you're a French person and a composer living at that time and place, that's what you had to deal with. And Farrenc had to deal with not only that, but also, as you mentioned, systemic sexism and the expectation of being a woman and as anybody who's not a white male can tell you today, it's like you have to color within the lines. You can't afford to be an iconoclast. You have to come up with another way of asserting your voice.

This also presents a dilemma for us talking about Farrenc's music today, because we tend to grow up with this idea of the canon. That's one of the first things that you are introduced to when studying classical music or the dozen or so great names, you know, Beethoven, Bach, Schobert, et cetera, et cetera. They become reference points for how you talk about at all other music.


John Banther : Yeah.


James Jacobs: And this really puts composers who aren't in that canon at a huge disadvantage and it's not fair. And it's also not fair to us as listeners because-


John Banther : No.


James Jacobs: We're depriving ourselves-


John Banther : Yes.


James Jacobs: Of some really great listening experiences. So, throughout this program, we are occasionally going to have we reference Beethoven and Mozart and the rest because that's what Farrenc herself did and that's what her listeners did. But we're really going to try to encourage you, not only for Farrenc's music, but for anyone's music to really take it on its own terms and to really listen for what it has to say, I mean, everybody had some sort of limitation. Everybody had some sort of challenge to come up against. And so we have to embrace those challenges and adopt new vocabularies every time. So, this is going to be an adventure for all of us as we explore with as fresh ears as possible, the music of Louise Farrenc.


John Banther : Yes. And what for me has a lot of weight to this symphony or kind of importance was the fact that you think of a composer when they sit down to write a symphony, especially at this time with all of the lack of technology and efficiencies and advantages we have today, it's an extraordinary amount of time and effort you have to put in. So if you're a French composer and you're writing a piece of music that you're not a hundred percent sure is going to be played or even loved, because it doesn't quite fit into this canon that you just described as well. It makes it all that more kind of important in my mind that she sat down and wrote this. She was quite dedicated then, and she completed this third one in 1847. She did hear it performed more than once I believe, but it wasn't something that was performed a lot, especially in her lifetime.

So jumping into the first movement right away, the opening kind of grabs you. This call in the winds and you feel a bit tonally nebulous. You're not quite sure well, what key is this in? What's going on with the harmony? And then there is this transition into a faster tempo, like an allegro. And the transition is quite something. It's like we're channeling all this energy and opposing rhythms. And she is taking us to a singular point where it all kind of blows out with this big statement in the strings.


James Jacobs: Yeah. There's a way in which Farrenc sort of dispenses with formalities. Usually a composer will sort of have a big opening chord before the plaintiff oboe solo, and she just goes right into the plaintiff oboe solo. And then in the transition, there's usually some kind of anchor and Farrenc is sort of trusting us to sort of go along with her for the ride, as there's no guardrails. She's just-


John Banther : No, it feels like no guardrails on that transition. That's what it feels like.


James Jacobs: It really does. You don't know where the beat is at first, it's like the violins are always off the beat. And then there is a sense of a rival and in a theme that, here I go, that she borrowed from a Beethoven cello sonata. But even if she did that deliberately, intellectual property had a different meaning back then. And you could say that she saw the orchestral, the symphonic potential of this theme and she took it to a different place. She took it to another level. And one of the things to bear in mind about Farrenc is that she didn't write much orchestral music compared to the (vanderteamer) music that she wrote because she simply didn't have access to orchestras. And you can sense that not because her sense of orchestration is anything less than, if I can use the word masterful, but she's very assured. She has a sense of how to use different combinations of instruments together in a way that sounds like extended chamber music that will sound like for example, her famous nonet, a work for nine instruments. And it has that same sort of feeling of like a mass. Sort of dialogue among all the instruments, and not just dominated by the first violins.


John Banther : It's not dominated by the first violins. That's exactly right, because when you start with this winds and you have some more wind elements here early on. Now, if you like the wind section, you're going to love this symphony.


James Jacobs: (inaudible) .


John Banther : Because it is so fantastic for the winds and the chamber music aspect you're talking about, it's so present in the winds, you'll hear times in this symphony where the winds are just entirely alone, just by themselves. And the way she does it, it feels more elevated and complete rather than this is just a transition from one theme or one section of the movement to the next. It sounds like there's a much bigger statement being made than just, oh, we're going from here to here now. And she also does really interesting things with bringing in subito dynamics. Subito is what you see in your music, which means suddenly. So if you're playing along and you're playing piano, then you'll hit a note that says subito f, that means subito forte, you're suddenly loud on that. And she brings those elements in with unison lines in the strings that jumps out at the texture and it gives it a bit of a, for me, a bit of a sinister kind of uncomfortable feeling. You feel like there's something sinister going on underneath, and I just love it.


James Jacobs: And one element that adds to that sense of sinisterness is the fact that she uses timpani but no trumpets. And that's actually very unusual.

Well, it really goes back to military bands where trumpets were basically playing the upper partials, the upper resonances of the timpani note. They were one instrument, in a way, of sort of having these old military tattoos in the middle of symphonies. And I mean, Beethoven experimented with it a little bit, but to do that in this work that feels kind of like a chamber symphony. And yet it's the timpani that pretty much single handedly makes it into a large orchestral work. And to have this one instrument with two drums expand exponentially the sound of the orchestra, the feel of the orchestra, the symphonic grander of the orchestra. It's an extraordinary original step.


John Banther : And there's two things I noticed with this. I like that you bring up the orchestration is masterful because it really is. There's just two horns in the brass section, no trumpets. There's no trombones. There's no tuba. There's the wind section, the full wind section, and the strings. So with just two horns, she's creating this dark sound that is not muddy. It's dark, but it's rich. And I think you can achieve that by also not including some of the lower instruments, like the trombone, for instance, because that instrument itself is actually kind of bright in its tamber. It's cylindrical, meaning from the beginning of the instrument to the end, it's mostly the same diameter until the bell, the flare part, where the sound comes out basically. And it gives it a brighter sound. So even omitting some of those lower instruments, it still makes it sound dark, but a little bit more, I don't know, rich. It's just not muddy. It's a really interesting sound that you don't hear in too many other symphonies. And by taking away the trumpet and the timpani, we'll hear in other movements where it gives much more authority and weight, I think, to the timpani, because when it comes in and like I described it, it's like an extension from the timpani going down.


James Jacobs: Well, that's really something that really struck me about this piece is that it's sounds like an orchestra. It sounds like a symphony, but she approaches it from someone who is written all this chamber music. Like every part is important. There's not a lot of the kinds of doublings that you might see. Even the cellos and basses have two very distinct parts and very distinct roles. And it's just one of the many extraordinary aspects of this work.


John Banther : And getting into the second movement, this is such a beautiful, slow symphonic movement. Right from the beginning, you'd think, and so many, I would say the vast majority of symphonies before this point, it's a nice introduction, beautiful string section. And then after the string section, then the wind section would pick it up for a little transition, but here, it's the winds straight away. And the strings that come back afterwards.


James Jacobs: When I listen to this movement, John, I have to say that it sort of makes irrelevant all the arguments over whether this is derivative music or not. Like, yes, it's in an earlier style, but it's by choice. And within the constraints that she had, it just carries you along on this beautiful sonorities and gorgeous melodies.


John Banther : I like that, it carries you on, because it does carry you on. And it's this pastoral sound that would've been very familiar. A lot of drone sounds in the horns and bassoons, but the difference is, and a reason why us as musicians are kind of geeking out so much on the sound that Farrenc is making is because just as musicians, hearing things done in a slightly different way, or more clever, or maybe even more intuitive way, it's like a fireworks in your ears almost the way it's just so pleasing to listen to.


James Jacobs: And it sort of goes against the grain. I think this is another thing that makes her unique in the context of the history of music. Because when we think of the development of music from the early 19th century (inaudible) into the early 20th century, and people like Mueller and Strauss, we think of everything getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And here's an example of someone demonstrating that less can be more, which goes against everything we think of when we think of the narrative of music in the 19th century. She's making these practical things, she's being economical, and she's getting the most out of limited resources. And there's a way in which this symphony, and again, and I'm making this reference for a reason. It goes back to our at earlier symphony in G minor, Mozarts 40th.

The original draft from Mozart's 40th symphony, he originally planned to use four horns, and then he realized that he could do the same thing using just two horns, but in two different keys. Using different crooks on the natural horns. And that's exactly what Farrenc does in this symphony as well, uses two horns, natural horns in two different keys. And yet with just those two horns creating this incredible sound, this incredible array of colors and power in the orchestra. And so in this case, looking backwards was a source of inventiveness and sort of like, oh, this is a good idea, so it's not an act of nostalgia, it's an act of sort of looking back and seeing the tools that she could use for her purposes.


John Banther : And that's what being an artist is. It's not about completely, I mean, sometimes it is completely creating something new from nothing, but what an artist does is take things that they see and what's around them and change things around to create something new to show you a different aspect of something, like for instance, in this movement, it's expansive and it's rich. And then you have a moment in the timpani and when it comes out, it has so much more weight and impact by itself like this than if it had been led in by the trumpet, for instance, still being tied with that. So she's doing all that in both movements so far, and this is one you really just sit back and enjoy.


James Jacobs: Yeah, absolutely. It's a beautiful movement, and as I said, kind of like any expectations you have going into it become irrelevant as you just get carried away.


John Banther : And we'll get into the third and fourth movement right after this.

Classical Breakdown is made possible by WETA Classical. Listen to the music anytime day or night at wetaclassical. org or on the WETA classical app, it's free in the app store.

So we get into the third movement scherzo now, and for the time, I think this was a rather typical, scherzo within the form that would've been expected, right?


James Jacobs: Yes. And because the scherzo was the last addition to the symphony, because it had been a dance movement, it had been a minuet, and then it was Haydn and then Beethoven who created this thing called the scherzo, the joke, which didn't always mean something humorous, it could also mean something, I guess what you could say is a character piece where the orchestra could kind of let off steam in a way. It was sort of some kinetic energy before getting into the business of wrapping things up in the finale. It's the most modern of all the symphonic movements and fittingly, I would say that this scherzo in this symphony is the most modern sounding of all four movements, I would say. I don't know if you would agree, where she draws on more recent influences. Like you hear a bit of (Bendalson) I think in the very beginning. But again, I think the comparisons quickly become, I mean, there are references to Mendelssohn scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream and scherzo from Beethoven's Eroica, but I think, in a way, those references are instructive because by the time you're halfway through the scherzo you realize, oh, it's all Farrenc It's her putting her spin on this form.

And this is the form where the composer had the most freedom, I think, to sort of experiment and do different things, because it wasn't as set in stone as the sonata form of the first movement or what? A rhapsodic slow movement could be. And she makes most of that.


John Banther : And I think she brings in a lot of elements from the other movements, kind of in distilled form here. We have moments where the strings are jumping out in unison to really emphasize something. Or sometimes, in my case, it startles me, which I like though in music. And thinking back to the opening of the symphony, where we talked about that transition that was so interesting with the strings and winds on different rhythms, a lot of offbeats. And I hear in this movement that same singing oboe over top of these really, really busy strings that it feels like we're calling right back to the first movement. And then we have what feels like some real big nods to 18th century music with these pastoral horn calls. Dun, dun dun, dun dun. It's like half of a horn call that you expect, for instance, in Mozart's string quartet, the horn quartet, right? And she's bringing these elements back into here and it's just really interesting what she does with the color and harmony. I think this movement is where it gets a little more adventurous in that regard than the others. Some really fantastic rich color and harmony is coming out, especially in the winds.

There's a moment where the winds, again, if you like the winds, you're going to like this, they're completely alone and underneath in the strings. I think it might just be violins. It's pizzicato, but it must be written so soft in the part. It has a different sound. If you think of movements of symphonies, like Tchaikovsky that have a whole pizzicato string movement in them. Here underneath the winds, it's almost like you can't hear it, but you can feel it. And it gives the texture of the strings, almost sounds to me like insects crawling around just like. The way that the pizzicatos are all mixing together. Really, really, really soft at one point in this movement.

Jumping into the fourth movement, the opening this, for me, it has a lot of ballet like qualities.

I think the French have this uncanny way of depicting dances especially in the strings where it's supposed to sound kind of fun, but it sounds a little, I don't want to say sinister again, but it's kind of like delirious. It's this nice little dance, but something sounds off about it.


James Jacobs: Yeah. It's very, very-


John Banther : Creepy.


James Jacobs: It's very structured. It's creepy. But you definitely get this sense of gesture. This movement probably has the most clear model of any of the four movements. And in this case, the finale of Mozart's 40th symphony, which again is an example of really extreme emotion and passion within these very strict classical restraints. And so, you get, beneath the sheen of this very polished surface, these real human emotions and passions that were sort of crying out, but being forced into these straight lines and which in itself is a source of drama right there. And I think that speaks to Farrenc's own condition as a creative artist at that time. And so, at the one time, perhaps the most strictly classical conservative of the four movements, but it's also the one that I think most deals with the key of G minor as a key, a stormy key, a key of extreme passion.


John Banther : Speaking of structure, just to kind of compare and contrast between a hundred years before this and now. In the 18th century, thinking Mozart and Haydn, the symphony had a very structured big first movement. That's where your big ideas and musical development and problem solving was taking place. That slowly changed, of course, well, maybe not so slowly with Beethoven. His Symphony No. 9 it blew up so many expectations for the symphony. And we start to see the transition of the fourth movement being the big movement you lead to. That's the kitchen sink of everything. But Farrenc is going back to the previous century, which we call the classical period, roughly 1750 to 1800- ish and borrowing from that a bigger first movement here and a fourth movement that's quite intense and passionate, like you said, but is on a smaller or you don't want to say it's not less developed in terms of like that's bad or something. It's just, she's saying more with less.


James Jacobs: Yes, absolutely. Like the other movements, even though it has all these influences, it actually reveals Farrenc's actual originality, because being an original composer is not just about writing stuff that nobody has written. In fact, you can't really do that.


John Banther : No.


James Jacobs: It's about being an original listener. It's about what you hear when you hear other music and what you pick up on, and what you absorb and the kind of things that you absorb. And so, in this movement, particularly we hear what Farrenc gets when she listens to Mozart, when she listens to Beethoven, and what aspects of it are most striking to her and most personal to her. And that really comes out in this. So by seeing the past through her prism, it's almost like a postmodern effect and it ends up being strikingly original.


John Banther : That's very interesting. I really like that perspective of this because it does to make it original. There's another thing she does that it really struck me the first time I heard it. Of course, in music, you can repeat things for effect. You can repeat something the same. You can repeat it a little bit different. She kind of going still in the realm of this movement is passionate. It can be creepy at times, seems like there's a delirious dance. She has this moment where she repeats a figure and it doesn't seem like this figure needs to be repeated. If this was a hundred years earlier, she may not have written it this way, but it repeats more than it should. And it sounds very intimidating.

And for everyone listening, I've had to make things listening friendly. So the actual dynamic contrast of that when you hear it in a performance or when you listen to some recordings, it's quite extreme.


James Jacobs: Yes. It really is. And you almost feel just as we were talking about how the first movement had no guardrails and this movement is all guardrails, and it almost makes it scarier. But it's also...


John Banther : No escape.


James Jacobs: Yeah. There's no escape. And it is a very theatrical gesture really to bring this music and all the aspects of this music that seem to be almost out of control, particularly in the first and third movements, together into something that is very controlled to like, okay, you want control, here's some control. And you get this almost militaristic sense of this repetition, that like, okay, be careful what you wish for. And it really brings a sort of fatalistic end to this work.


John Banther : So many things are happening it can be turbulent, contrasting ideas are brought in and out rather quickly here. And she's pushing us out of our comfort zone at times. But when she pushes us out of our comfort zone, she then also offers relief, again, at times, in the wind section.


James Jacobs: Yes, absolutely. And also it's interesting that we're talking about her pushing us out of our comfort zone, because when you contrast the way she does it to the way that contemporaries like Berlioz, or Chopin, or Liszt did it, it's much more subtle. But it's all the more powerful for that because you don't expect it. You're sort of lulled into complacency because it seems like a throwback at first, sort of like, oh, we're going back to the era of powdered wigs and Beethoven and Mozart. But Farrenc is not nostalgic at all. And that's not her game at all. And the audiences she was playing this for were. That's a whole different thing. And I think this was sort of her way of kind of, well, you want the way it really was?


John Banther : It sounds like she's checking the boxes needed to get this played. I think it was actually premiered alongside Beethoven's 5th symphony. So she's checking off the boxes to make sure that it's acceptable to the school, the conservator, whoever, I guess, who would be performing it in this context with Beethoven's 5th symphony. But she's checking off a lot more boxes on her own list of all the stuff she's putting in here.


James Jacobs: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. That's a very good way of putting it.


John Banther : Unfortunately, this was her final symphony. After this, she found much more success with chamber music for a variety of reasons. One of them, I believe, of course being sexism, and it's robbed of course her and the listeners, because we don't have a Symphony No 4.


James Jacobs: No.


John Banther : We don't have other large scale orchestral works from her. So my recommendation is, if you haven't heard this symphony before, we're going to put links of performances on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. Take a listen, but don't let it be the only time you hear it. I always recommend listen to something, listen to it a couple times even. Put it down for a few weeks, set an alarm on your phone, a reminder a month later, hey, listen to Farrenc Symphony No. 3 again. You're going to hear it completely differently the second time. You're going to hear things you never even heard the first time.


James Jacobs: I think there's something, you know, it's interesting because it just occurred to me that I think there is something about sort of tragic about Farrenc's story, even though she lived to be 70, 71. There does seem to be a bit of an unfinished life there. I mean, I think part of the reason why she stopped composing it all together was out of grief for a family member. And there was a sense that even being the most successful woman musician of her time, still came with all these constraints and all these missed opportunities. And part of that was, as we mentioned, was because of the woman, and part of that was the time itself was just a tragic time. It was a tragic, oppressive time and place to be in. And so, this is what we've got.

And so, in her body of work that might be an incomplete portrait of who she was. And we have to do perhaps a little bit more work to really get at who she was by listening closely. But that's what makes it all the more poignant and all the more rewarding to listen to a composer that we have to go to and isn't always being pushed at us. We enter into her mindset and we are rewarded with this really unique mind and unique creative spirit, and it's worth the journey, every step of it.


John Banther : Well, thank you so much, James, for sharing with us your insight on this symphony. Of course, again, we'll have more information on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. And now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcast.

Now, James, this is a long one. This comes from a user called climb the tree and break a leg.


James Jacobs: Oh wow.


John Banther : I hope that is not from-


James Jacobs: I hope that's not literal.


John Banther : Yeah. I hope that's not a dark story. They gave us five stars on Apple Podcast and left a rather lengthy, but really greatly detailed review. They said, I love it. I play flute and saxophone, and it was incredible to listen to your flute episode. I learned so much and it allowed me a new perspective. I really, really appreciate the excerpts of the pieces you play while you're talking about it. It helps tremendously.


John Banther : Maybe you could do a saxophone episode. I know it's not a traditional classical instrument, which is why I think it would make an informative and hopefully humorous episode. Your station is my go- to for after band practices driving home. And it always calms me down, especially when my anxiety is high. Having the news sprinkled in there from NPR is amazing too. Thank you, and I hope this review helps your popularity and status. Well, thank you so much climb the tree and break away.


James Jacobs: Wow. Yes, they've got quite a bit to say. And I, again, I hope that you didn't actually break a leg, but I...


John Banther : Unless they're a musician.


James Jacobs: Unless they're a musician. Yes.


John Banther : And if you'd like to leave a review, please do so in your podcast app. And maybe we'll read it here. And if you have any comments, questions, or ideas for episodes, you can send me an email classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. I'm John Banther, thank you so much for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.