Female composers deserve to be recognised

Conductor Laurence Equilbey on the discovering the works of  Louise Farrenc

On 8 March I will be celebrating International Women’s Day with Insula orchestra at the Barbican with a performance of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No 3, placed alongside Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. You can be forgiven for not knowing who Louise Farrenc was – even most musicologists know her as little more than a footnote in history. It’s true that Farrenc (1804-1875) was not a composer of operas, which perhaps would have given her a better chance of fame in posterity.

Some might say that it is risky to present the symphony of a little known female composer for our second visit to London. At Insula we thought differently: after all, when better to make a bold move to celebrate the work of a composer who has been long overlooked due to her gender than on International Women’s Day? It is the ideal opportunity to make a statement by celebrating an unjustly neglected composer even if she, along with a handful of others, remains an anomaly in history. Those of us in a position to do so have a responsibility to be advocates for the undervalued in this niche world often dominated by the same few names.

In our new venue in Paris, La Seine Musicale, we are in a privileged position to present classical music from a fresh perspective. We have the freedom to move away from what is perceived as the classical norm, and not just in terms of bringing a multi-media dimension to most of our concerts of classical music. We can also experiment and take risks on repertoire.

I feel there is a growing curiosity and even demand from audiences for music from a wider demographic. It was wonderful to hear the news last week that 45 international music festivals, from the BBC Proms, to Pop-Kultur Berlin, to Cheltenham Jazz Festival joined the Keychange Initiative pledging a 50:50 gender split in programming new music by men and women by 2022.

But let’s not forget the women composers who came before us and that they did exist, even if not in huge numbers. This is why I want to put the spotlight on Louise Farrenc, who was a contemporary of Beethoven and was taught by the same teacher as him; the Czech composer, Anton Reicha, who moved and settled in Paris.

When Louise Farrenc’s third symphony received its premiere in Paris in 1845, it was performed alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No 5.  La Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris wrote of the performance at the time: ”This interesting musical event has established Madame Farrenc as a composer, surpassing the faculties of all the women who have written music, rivalling our (male) sex and honouring the nation of her birth with her outstanding talent that combines the sense of melody with the science of sounds.”

But what is Farrenc’s music like?  I discovered her symphony along with her chamber music a few years ago – her music is perhaps the most Germanic of French composers. This symphony has been immaculately constructed, and uses fascinating rhythmic motifs, very powerful orchestration, and has beautiful melodic themes evocative of Mendelssohn.

So who was she and how did she become a composer?  Farrenc studied piano with Hummel and composition with Reicha. She became professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but it was only after seven years that she received the same pay as her male counterparts. She held the post for 30 years and became one of the most successful and sought-after piano pedagogues of her time. The majority of Farrenc’s compositions are for solo piano but her chamber music pieces are some of her finest. She also composed two overtures and three symphonies. She had a supportive husband in Aristide Farrenc, a flautist who encouraged her to compose.

At Insula, we don’t want to stop there. It’s high time that other talented women like Helene de Montgeroult, Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn and Marie Jaell are given due recognition. In the upcoming seasons, we are planning to perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s Hero et Leander, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and I would love to tackle the work of even more rarely performed female composers, like Clemence de Grandval.