FARRENC Louise, Nonet in E flat, Op.38

With the first performance of this Nonet in 1850, Louise Farrenc achieved her greatest success as a composer – so much so that as a result she was able demand (and to get) a teaching salary for her job at the Paris Conservatoire that was the same as that paid to her male colleagues – a remarkable coup in the middle of the nineteenth century.


The premiere took place on 19 March 1850 at the Salle Erard and the ensemble was led by a brilliant young prodigy: Joseph Joachim – still in his teens but already an artist who was in demand all over Europe. Coincidentally, the violin has some unusually florid moments in the Nonet, including a cadenza at the end of the first movement. More remarkable, though, is the skill with which Farrenc shares the musical argument throughout the instruments, though it’s not surprising when we note that she was an accomplished composer of orchestral works including three symphonies, the last of which had been played in Paris a year earlier, in 1849.


Given the quality and originality of this music, it’s puzzling that Farrenc is not better known. As well as having to battle with prejudice against her gender, she had another issue to face: for composers to enjoy really big success in nineteenth-century Paris they needed to write operas, and Farrenc’s interests lay entirely in instrumental music. Still, the Nonet was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm, though her music lapsed into obscurity after her death in 1875. In the last twenty years or so Farrenc has enjoyed a well-deserved revival, with recordings of all her major chamber and orchestral works.


The Nonet is in four movements and has the combination of melodic inventiveness and charm that music by lesser composers often lacks. With echoes of Beethoven, Schubert and Spohr, this is the work of a serious and gifted musician who has a genuinely individual style. The fluency with which the violin cadenza merges seamlessly into the end of the movement is a mark of this. The rather Schubertian opening to the slow movement reveals a superb melodist, and the plucked strings and spiky interjections at the start of the Scherzo – and the rampaging tune that eventually emerges – are vastly appealing and characterful. After a slow introduction, the finale feels easy-going but makes considerable demands on the players.


Nigel Simeone


Support from individuals is vital to our work.
Your gifts help us engage the very best in UK and international talent in our concerts, and to run our annual Sheffield Chamber Music Festival.