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Overture No. 1, op. 23 (1834)
Louise Farrenc (1804–1875)

Louise Farrenc, née Dumont, was born in Paris in 1804, the scion of a family of notable artists. Though both her father and brother were successful sculptors, Louise’s musical talent was obvious from childhood; by age fifteen she was privately studying composition and orchestration with Anton Reicha, professor of composition at the Conservatoire. In 1821 she married Aristide Farrenc, a fellow Conservatoire student and enterprising music publisher. All of her publications were released under his imprint, beginning with her early piano pieces published in 1825.

Louise Farrenc maintained a life as an active musician and teacher; she was appointed professor of piano at the Conservatoire in 1842, and held the post until her retirement in 1873, becoming the only woman in the nineteenth century to hold a permanent chair at the Conservatoire. Many of her students—including her daughter, Victorine—were awarded the most prestigious performance prizes of the Conservatoire and of the city of Paris, bearing witness to Farrenc’s pedagogical talent. She augmented her teaching curriculum with a 23-volume historic synopsis of keyboard music which she and her husband edited. Louise Farrenc was preceded in death by her daughter (1859) and husband (1865) and devoted her remaining years to composition and historical research into keyboard performance.

Farrenc’s most important compositional contributions are her piano and chamber music, remarkable for both their subtle formal conservatism and her musical success in a neglected French repertoire. Her mature orchestral works, though grand in scale and vision, have not enjoyed the same reception as her chamber music.

Farrenc’s Overture No. 1, Op. 23, written in 1834, was never published or performed in her lifetime. Its twin, Overture No. 2, Op. 24 was premiered in 1840; in a review of that premier, Hector Berlioz wrote that the music was “well written, and orchestrated with a talent rare among women”—a statement demonstrating both her musical skill and the professional boundaries other imposed on her because of her gender. The scoring for these two Overtures is for a large symphony orchestra, including seventeen wind parts, with strings and percussion.

Farrenc’s model is the “concert overture” of Beethoven; the genre developed from operatic overtures which had been divorced from their theatrical homes and placed in the concert halls. Farrenc’s overtures bear the most similarity to Mendelssohn's in their tone and form. Beginning with a slow introduction in E major, the music settles into a spirited E minor main section in sonata form. The first theme features a dashing violin melody, which segues to a calmer second theme in G major, initiated by the clarinet. The strings dominate the closing of the exposition; the tumultuous development, at times with fugal aspirations, ends with a brief pause before entering a recapitulation of the main material, with the instrumentation and key centers changed.

- Harrison Russin, Duke University Music Department