Hidden figures (1/3)

In 2018 the association Donne – Women in Music assessed that only 2,3% of the works performed in classical music concerts were written by women. Two years later, the figure has gone up to 5 %, which is a real improvement, but also shows that the fight for gender equality in classical music is an uphill battle. This is the result of centuries of marginalization and invisibility by men who considered that women were unfit for artistic creativity :

« While women have long been acknowledged as great interpreters of music, the field of composition has been traditionally dominated by men. Through a conspiracy of silence on the part of music historians, coupled with the gender biased writings of philosophers and music critics of the past and of psychologists both past and present, the age-old myth has been perpetuated that the gift of musical creativity is granted only to males. » (Eugene Gates, « Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories, past and Present ? », The Journal of Aesthetic Education,Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1994)

Portrait of Louise Farrenc by Luigi Rubio (1835)

Despite this, many women overcame the obstacles construed by the patriarchy and composed. Alas, even when they achieved a certain recognition in their lifetime, their works were generally buried by a relentless mechanism of invisibilisation, giving the impression that the history of music is limited to the production of men (mostly white middle and upper class men).

For several decades now, this invisibility has been challenged and women composers have gradually emerged from the shadows, been programmed in concerts and festivals and recorded. But programming women composers is a real struggle: manuscripts must be found, scores deciphered, edited, artists and programmers must be convinced, and audiences must be brought in. This requires an enormous investment, as shown by the remarkable work of French harpsichordist Claire Bodin with the Présences Féminines festival or cellist Heloïse Luzzati with the festival Un Temps pour Elles in France, or the work of composer/pianist Heather (Rupy) Seaton with the Women Composer Festival in the United States.

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) is one of the composers whose music has recently been rediscovered. Last month several discs devoted to her work were released, including a beautiful recording of her Symphonies n° 1 and 3 by Laurence Equilbey and Insula Orchestra.

Louise Farrenc is both an exception and a typical example of the career of 19th century female composers: an exception because of the talent, the prestigious support and the recognition she gained during her lifetime. As a composer, performer, teacher, editor and musicologist, she displayed unfailing energy and determination to take her place in the world of European music. And this was necessary in the 19th century: « This period marks the blossoming of an extreme polarisation of Western societies, into two « worlds », feminine and masculine, symbolised respectively by the domestic and professional worlds and, in terms of leisure, the salon and the circle (or café). » (Florence Launay, Les compositrices en France au XIXe siècle, Fayard). Creation was for men, procreation for women. A woman composer was therefore harshly judged as a creator, since she was thought to be transgressing the social order.

Her career path is also characteristic of that of female composers of her time: born and raised in a bourgeois and artistic family, she had to put her career on hold when she married, and then benefited from the support of her husband, himself an artist, and was therefore able to resume her career. She composed mainly for piano and chamber music, and even became a piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, but not much for the orchestra, and not at all for opera, a domain reserved for men. And after her death, her work as a composer was forgotten, even though the reception of her contemporaries should have allowed her to gain a status of « minor composer ». (cf Florence Launay, Les compositrices en France au XIXe siècle, Fayard)

In the 1850s, it was extremely difficult for a French composer to have his symphonies programmed in concert, considered as a Germanic genre, even though the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire de Paris was « a reference in the field of orchestral performance » (Christin Heitmann, CD booklet). The fault lies with Beethoven, « the god of the temple », who largely dominated symphonic concert programmes, including at the expense of Schubert and Schumann. The success of Louise Farrenc, who managed to get her 3rd symphony played by the Société des concerts du Conservatoire, shows the extent of her talent and the recognition she gained in the musical landscape of the mid-19th century.

The success of Louise Farrenc’s symphonies can also be explained by her very solid training, her mastery of Viennese classicism and her « formidable melodic inventiveness »:

« Heir to Beethoven by way of her teachers Reicha and Hummel, Farrenc carved out a remarkable place for herself in the symphonic repertoire, between the French and Germanic spheres of influence. […] Although trained in the German compositional style, a wide range of influences is discernible in her music: a plethora of Mozartian touches, an Italianate virtuosity in her string writing that puts in mind of Vivaldi, and a fluid and often very innovative harmonic language recalling some of Schubert’s most daring ideas ». (Laurence Equilbey, CD booklet)

This recording of Farrenc’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, which is the « first in a planned cycle of [her] complete symphonic music », is therefore doubly important: firstly, it highlights the symphonies of a French composer whose work represents an essential milestone in understanding the development of orchestral music in France, and secondly, it sheds light on a composer who has been unjustly forgotten by music history.

Laurence Equilbey took « the utmost care and attention » in recording these symphonies, in particular in choosing instruments from the mid-19th century, « extremely well-suited to the suppleness of this particular musical idiom. » The result is magnificent: the music breathes, vibrates, and unfolds thanks to phrasing chiselled by Equilbey’s sharp and dynamic direction and to the clarity, transparency, vivacity and refined colours of the Insula Orchestra.

In the course of this project, the French conductor also wishes to highlight Farrenc’s contemporaries Clara Schumann, Fanny Henkel-Mendelssohn and Emilie Mayer. As she explains in the booklet: « We owe to this music, which often as never heard during the lifetime of these composers, to perform it with the utmost care and attention so that hugely talented voices, still in the midst of rediscovery, can finally claim their rightful place in symphonic programmes as well as on discs. »

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