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The piano roils underneath a fanfare from the winds in the dramatic opening to French composer Louise Farrenc’s Sextet for piano and winds in C minor, Op. 40. It’s an incredibly virtuosic piano part, but that’s perhaps not surprising given Farrenc herself was such an accomplished pianist.
She began learning the instrument at the age of six and was soon studying at the Paris Conservatoire. She took piano lessons with the likes of Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (who was taught by Mozart) and composition lessons with Anton Reicha (a friend of Beethoven). The composition lessons were private, however, as women weren’t permitted to enrol in the Conservatoire’s composition class. But by 1842 Farrenc’s success as a performer led to her appointment as Professor of Piano at the Conservatoire, a position she held for 30 years.
Farrenc’s career as a composer was in full swing when she wrote this sextet, completed in 1852. She already had several overtures and three symphonies under her belt, as well as her famous Nonet – the success of which encouraged her to demand equal pay with her male colleagues at the Conservatoire.
The combination of piano and wind quintet is unusual for the time, and parallels are often drawn to Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and winds, still 80 years away. With such a brilliant piano opening, it could almost be a mini concerto – if the winds didn’t soon prove themselves equal partners. The winds begin the slow movement, but they quickly move aside to make way for a gorgeous piano melody, the ensemble passing the music gently back and forth. The lively finale threatens to become turbulent, but any hint of shadow is dispelled by bright, glittering piano lines and chirpy winds.
© Angus McPherson 2023