A woman in 19th-century France equaled her male peers in composing music. What can we learn from her career about how to close the gender gap today?
“This ain’t no special pleading,” wrote Tom Service when he put Louise Farrenc's Third Symphony into his invaluable guide to the 50 greatest symphonies. This piece, he said, “deserves a place alongside Mendelssohn’s symphonies in the repertoires of every orchestra.” And Farrenc was no one-hit wonder: she also wrote great chamber and piano works. They were performed even outside of her native France and won praise from people who were not easily impressed, like Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann. In our own time, she’s been called “arguably the greatest woman composer of the 19th century," and if you ask me, you don't need the qualifier. The ranking is obvious.
It’s also obvious that in an ideal world the classical pantheon would have been as open to women as to men - and that in reality her ascent was a rare exception. Yet it sheds light on how we could make it normal. Farrenc’s case also clarifies why gender balance matters for classical music: not because women write music differently than men (there’s nothing “feminine” about her music, as Service and her contemporaries noted), but because excluding half the population means excluding half the genius. The 19th century’s musical legacy would have been even more towering if women hadn’t been so discouraged from adding to it.
The discouragement ranged from the informal to the systematic. In Farrenc’s day, only 10% of the faculty at the Paris Conservatory was female, and until 1870, women could not even take its courses in composition, much less teach them. She became the Conservatory's second woman professor in 1842 (the first, an aristocratic founder in 1795, left after two years), but during Farrenc's 40-year tenure she taught only piano, never composition.
How, then, did she become a great composer? I’ll offer some pet theories in a moment, but first, let’s take a music break. Farrenc’s mastery of the sheer craft of composition has never been doubted, but she also had a gift for inspired ideas. Try, for example, one of her chamber masterpieces, the Piano Quintet no. 2. After a brief introduction, she introduces the main theme; it’s hymnlike, played softly, at two-triplets-to-a-bar, but see if it doesn’t make you think of the catchiest public-radio earworm ever written:
When Don Voegeli wrote the bouncy march that is the All Things Considered song in 1976, he was inspired by the rhythm of radio static and couldn’t possibly have known Farrenc's Quintet, which had been out of print since 1895 and wasn’t recorded until the 1990s. The similarity is one of the great musical coincidences, like the similarity between Mahler’s heaven-storming Symphony no. 2, “The Resurrection,” and the Mexican Hat Dance Song:
Coincidence aside, can you think of any tune more irresistible than the All Things Considered song? Except for, maybe, the Mexican Hat Dance Song? But what’s most telling is that as you listen to Farrenc’s Quintet, the power of her harmonies and counterpoint makes you forget the familiar radio theme and draws you into a realm of noble, un-ironic depth that was to become more difficult for composers to plumb in later centuries.
Back to explanations. Like plants, talent needs various kinds of nurturing to flower. The case of Farrenc helps identify three of them. First, Farrenc never fell for what we might call the Amadeus Myth - the belief that great art flows mystically through a divinely inspired elect, who therefore don’t have to work at it. Instead, Farrenc illustrates Steven Pinker’s quip that “geniuses are wonks.” Take Amadeus himself. The great musicologist Neal Zaslaw famously demonstrated that, contra-Peter Shaffer, Mozart was “a working stiff.” Like a mere mortal, Mozart sat down at his keyboard to write, then sketched, drafted and revised, sometimes laboriously. And before he reached maturity, he put in way more than the 10,000 hours of practice prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell. As soon as Wolfgang could walk, he was drilled in harmony, counterpoint, form and technique by his overbearing dad, the most famous violin teacher in Europe. Pierre Renoir advised his students to "First become a good craftsperson, then the genius will take care of itself." Before Renoir was born, Farrenc lived by that motto.
As a child of artists living in the Sorbonne, Farrenc obtained first-rate piano instruction, and when she decided to focus on composition she did it by embracing her inner wonk. Women couldn’t take conservatory classes in the field, so she sought out private instruction from the Conservatory’s director, Anton Reicha, the man who first used the term “sonata form” to codify the style of Haydn and Mozart. When Farrenc published a set of piano etudes - used at the Conservatory for most of the 19th century - she started with one in the style of Bach and then moved forward historically. The set illustrates her diligence and thoroughness in mastering her craft, and it let her do more than express herself as an amateur, unlike some of the other French female composers of her era. Instead, the professional skill set let Farrenc hit home runs in the musical major leagues.
But how did she get started on composing at all? This brings me to pet theory number two, which involves another character: her husband, Aristide Farrenc, whom she married when she was 17. Aristide was a flutist who composed a bit, realized he was a hack, then turned his focus to publishing and writing. But his musical knowledge made him, says a contemporary, “able to sense his young wife’s talent for composing, to encourage her, virtually force her, they say, to make available to the public works which her modesty, of a degree rarely encountered, impelled her to keep unpublished.”
"Aristide Farrenc was able to sense his young wife’s talent for composing, to encourage her, virtually force her, they say, to make available to the public works which her modesty, of a degree rarely encountered, impelled her to keep unpublished." -Michel Brenet
That “modesty” is confirmed in other sources: another witness wrote, “Modest, even timid, fleeing fame as diligently as other artists seek it, Madame Farrenc would have consigned her musical production to an external silence.” She did not, then, have what Stephen Colbert calls the “degree of narcissism involved in anything in show business. I mean, you can’t do it without a healthy ego.”
Lack of ego was not a problem for, say, Richard Wagner, who when he was not the center of attention at a party, let out a “brief but piercing scream.” Wagner frequently declared himself the future of music, wrote a 20-hour long opera cycle meant to change music history, and convinced a mad king to build a new opera complex for its performance. Of course, mega-egos can be found in musicians of both genders - check out the MTV awards! - and so can self-doubt. (And the optimum degree of self-doubt for an artist is greater than zero; self-criticism surely contributed to Farrenc’s combination of productivity and consistent quality.) But some professions systematically cause women of talent to doubt themselves, and classical composition is one.
We can see why by looking at mathematics, a discipline closely related to composing, partly because both fields emphasize the ideal of the "lone genius." In the title of this post I used the g-word, but it may itself be part of the problem: a recent study found that fields that exalt "genius" tend to be dominated by men. More broadly, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam reports on research showing that in mathematics and science women are discouraged not so much by overt discrimination as by subtler messages. Even female teachers judge students to be better at math if they believe they are male rather than female (the researchers randomly assigned the gender attribution of the work judged by the teachers). Women then internalize these stereotypes: research shows that women who are accomplished professionally in mathematics still tend to feel that they are “impostors,” and that on tests of math skills, girls perform better if the name they write at the beginning is fake, while boys perform just as well if they write down their own name.
Louise Farrenc is not the only great woman artist who was able to fulfill her talents because of a partner's encouragement. Marian Lewes took up fiction (with the pen-name “George Eliot”) only after her husband, George Henry Lewes, suggested it to her, and she went on to write the greatest novel in the English language, Middlemarch. Of course, there are countless examples of men who attained greatness only because a wife was encouraging them. (Looking at you, Vladimir Nabokov.) But in the 19th century, the Farrenc (and Lewes) marriages were all but unique. Far more typical was Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, a gifted musician temporarily forbidden to compose.
My point is not about spouses or parents, male or female. It’s that greatness is far more likely to emerge when you’re not indoctrinated with the idea that you don’t have what it takes, and far more likely to emerge when somebody is telling that you do have it and should run with it. Farrenc shows what can happen with a little encouragement: once she got started (her first publication was a set of variations on a theme by Aristide) she didn't stop until she had written major symphonies and chamber works.
This brings me to my last pet idea: genius needs time to accomplish its wonky work. Consider another 19th-century giant, Clara Schumann. She equaled Farrenc in compositional talent, but by the age of 37, Clara was a widow with eight children to raise and an income to earn. She more or less stopped composing - when exactly could she have written a symphony? The problem hasn’t disappeared: fiction writer Lorrie Moore responded a few years ago to a critic accusing her of writing too little - excuse me, she said, I'm a single mom with a full-time job. Moore said she needed a Vera Nabokov; maybe an Aristide would have been even better.
To be sure, Louise Farrenc had to earn a living: she and Aristide had a two-income household. Her teaching load was full, and the Farrencs had a daughter, a gifted pianist and composer named Victorine. Still, for three decades Louise's composing was prolific and increasingly masterful. A high point was her 1849 Nonet, the work that first hooked me on her music when the Cedar Valley Chamber Music Festival performed it in Cedar Falls-Waterloo in 2013. Here's a clip from that performance:
The Nonet was such a critical success that it gave Farrenc the courage to complain to the director of the Conservatory, Daniel Auber, about how much less she was paid than comparable male faculty. Her letter goes into detail, and it is a measure of the respect she had earned that Auber immediately agreed to raise her salary to parity.
Farrenc’s composing career ended in 1859 with a tragedy, the premature death of her daughter after a long illness. Louise never composed again. But she did not stop working. She taught to near the end of her life, and joined energetically with Aristide in a project that was to bear fruit in recent decades: research on the keyboard music of the French Baroque. By the early 20th century, her own music was no longer performed, and it probably wasn’t just a matter of gender, since male French “Classicists” of the 1840s also fell out of the repertory. Today we have rediscovered Farrenc partly because of what Service calls “special pleading”: our much-needed search for overlooked women from the past. But as Service demonstrates, she never should have needed those pleas. On its own, her music stands with the best of its era. Read him, but more importantly, listen to this, the complete Symphony no. 3:
Christin Heitmann has done the most important research, and she's posted an excellent guide (in English) online here. On the page, click on the "More" buttons for the full story.
Bea Friedland's research restored Farrenc to modern musicology, and her 1980 biography is still excellent.
Tom Service's Guide to the 50 Greatest Symphonies is not to be missed!