Until recently Farrenc has been practically unknown to symphonic audiences—especially in this country–but in her time she was held in high regard in the first half of the nineteenth century in France. Unlike so many women composers of the past, she suffered little obscurity during her lifetime. She evinced immense talent early on as a pianist, and after study with some of the most august teachers, began a career as performer and composer while in her teens. By the age of thirty-eight she was appointed a professor of piano at the prestigious Paris Conservatory, and had a long and distinguished career. All the while she was a busy composer, working in all major genres except opera. Her best works are considered her chamber music, and they enjoyed substantial recognition.
While she was primarily a pianist and professor of piano, the Overture No. 2 in Eb sounds like the work of a master of the orchestra—it rocks! A concert overture, meaning not associated with an opera, but a standalone work, it is nevertheless a reflection of the operatic scene in Paris during her lifetime. We must remember that opera was the far-preferred genre in that century in France, and the decades before and around the middle of the century were totally dominated by French Grand Opera. The most celebrated composers were Meyerbeer (from whom Wagner stole many of his ideas), Auber, Halévy, and Rossini (for his William Tell Overture). Every night the Paris Opera presented these large, long, spectacular operas, operas that the more violent, sordid, and colorfully and elaborately staged, the better. And, the vivid action on the stage was supported in the orchestra pit by virtuoso performers (usually professors from the Paris Conservatory) performing exciting scores. Scores that featured new instruments such as valved trumpets and horns, the bass clarinet, the English horn, and others—as well as an immoderate use of the piccolo.
This is the milieu that Farrenc knew so well, and was undoubted her model when she stepped into the symphonic arena, populated by these successful and forceful male composers. Her Overture No. 2 in Eb, composed in 1834 appeared only a few years after Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, Meyerbeers’s Robert le Diable, and Rossini’s William Tell. All of them gangbuster, dynamic works. Perhaps the best way to understand the musical atmosphere of the times is to remember that the 1828 première of Auber’s La Muette de Portici was so well received that the roused audience stormed out of the theatre, rioted in the streets, and modern Belgium was created as a result. Talk about the power of music in those days! It must be admitted that the dénouement, wherein the mute heroine leaped from her balcony into the mouth of Mt. Vesuvius (apparently a distance of several miles!) may have contributed to the excitement.
So, with this musical atmosphere in mind, it is clear whence the vivacity and power of this powerful, well-crafted overture stems. Louise Ferranc was obviously not only a gifted pianist, pedagogue, and composer, but with this powerful work as evidence, she most certainly must have been a formidable personality.
Program notes by William E. Runyan