Farrenc: Symphony No. 3 (Part II)


Mikko Franck and l'Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France.


(This is a continuation of our work on Louise Farrenc's Symphony no. 3 in G-minor. For background information about Farrenc, the composition, and available recordings, see the previous post. Read on for the meat-and-potatoes analysis!)


Instrumentation – – timp – str

A number of sources list the instrumentation for this piece as having a single tuba in addition to the above listed forces. Having consulted the new critical edition of the score, this is incorrect, and I am not sure the source of this errata. The forward of the new edition points out that this is the smallest of the orchestral works Farrenc composed, lacking trumpets and only two (rather than the often four) horns. It further points out that this symphony is a bit of a unicorn in mid/early 19th-century repertoire: the timpani appears divorced of any trumpets. Why Farrenc made this choice is unstated; it could have been the stipulations of the premiere, or it could have just been her preference at the time. Whatever the case, it is an interesting note in the diverging paths of trumpets and percussion towards independence.


As mentioned in the previous post, the symphony is four movements, and follows the standard sonata, aria, scherzo/trio, and finale arrangement. I will provide some rehearsal letters and measure numbers in case you are fortunate enough to have access to a score. Otherwise, listen along and see if you can't hear what's happening for yourself.


As would be expected of many (though not all) sonata-allegro forms at the time, the symphony begins with a slow introduction. Somewhat rare at the time of this composition is the softness and harmonic ambiguity of this music. Even post the creatio ex nihilo opening of Beethoven’s Ninth, most symphonies began with at least one forte stroke, or otherwise get to the action quickly. This sort of nebulous opening is sourced more from chamber music, and its appearance in a symphonic work suggests both Farrenc’s extensive experience working in smaller forms as well as her Romantic temperament. However, like many of the early and mid-Romantics, she also has a strong classicist underpinning, revealed in the brevity of this introduction; numbering just six bars, she wastes little time building to the allegro.

Once the tempo and meter have changed to Allegro 3/4, an 18-measure build-up leads to the appearance of the main theme. It is an elegant transition blending the wandering first measures with the energetic torso of the composition, one that most obviously has its precedent in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. That is not to say it is by any means a mere copy, but like any composition by any composer there is some degree of modeling to be found.

The first theme, appearing in unison strings, begins as powerful, leaping outlines of a g-minor triad and its dominant. This is followed by a chain of suspensions falling towards a brief half-cadential pause, before beginning what I would consider the “second part” of the main theme at rehearsal B, a rising and falling triad. This crescendos and intensifies, off-beat syncopations adding to propel and obscure the meter, until finally it bursts into rising minor scales that I refer to as the beginning of the sonata transition (measure 51).

(A quick side note: there are as many different theories and methodologies for how to label a “sonata” form as there are sonatas that have been composed. One of the most basic principles they all share is that no composer wrote according to theory until after such a theory was postulated. As it is still the most common version—and everyone already agrees about its shortcomings—I will use what the “classic” theme-area version of sonata form analysis, rather than something like Hepokowski and Darcy’s sonata theory).

This transition is divided into two parts. The first is the passage of rising scales mentioned above.. The second is a more lyrical, vocal passage in thirds that sets up the atmosphere of the second theme. Although Farrenc is quite classical in her structure, a note is worth making about key-areas. The symphony is in g-minor; the primary theme begins there, as does the transition, as expected. This transition modulates towards the target key of B-flat major, but just as soon as it seems to arrive in the first half shifts to B-flat minor and its second half (measure 73) begins comfortably settled in D-flat major. Compared against the tonic chord, this is the tritone, a distinctly unrelated key so far as sonata structures go. These sorts of sophisticated harmonic games suggest that not only was Farrenc toying with the unexpected, but anticipated (or perhaps, desired) a certain sophistication on the part of her audience. Of course, whatever musical sophistication she might have credited could not be extended to the sophistication of their gender politics.

The second theme, repeated major thirds and scales, begins in B-flat major a measure before rehearsal C, and demonstrates Farrenc’s love of the woodwind choir and chamber music. This 8 bar phrase is repeated with variation as a 10-bar phrase immediately following. It is the latter half of this second iteration that sparks the most interest: Farrenc sets up the feel of 2/4 across 3/4 in measure 105 in the horns and second oboe. Then, she bursts into dotted rhythms entirely devised to frustrate the pulse. These dotted rhythms appear on the third beat of measure 106 as if they were the downbeat of the phrase, and then proceed on their merry way as if the meter were 2/4. Of course, order must be reclaimed, and swift as they have made their statement the pulse is corrected in measure 109.

Measure 109 is the third theme (or second-second theme, just to add some more confusing labels), still in B-flat major, still lyric, still based mostly around arpeggios and scales. Rehearsal D is where the “closing theme” begins, although this too takes a developmental detour around measure 138 and modulates to the key of G-flat major (a half-step away from the key, yes, but miles away harmonically). Thirds suggesting the second theme reappear in measure 149, then we are returned to the key of B-flat major for a second closing theme at rehearsal E (this time descending arpeggios).

A brief codetta formed out of musical material derived from the tail end of the third (second-second) theme begins in measure 171, and the music begins to turn away from B-flat major and modulate through a lachrymose series of suspensions and ritardations until the key of g-minor is found again (in the case of the expository repeat) or the music deceptively resolves to E-flat.

I must editorialize for a moment. Partially due to the conviction of mentors in my past, I feel that in classical and romantic era symphonies--Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms—one should take all the repeats all the time. If repeats are to be omitted, those from the da capo in the scherzo would seem the best candidate. However, in this case, I’m not sure what is gained by doing this repeat. While structurally it makes some degree of sense, Farrenc’s supplied first ending almost seems like an arbitrary concession to common practice. It is a matter of taste, but in my own view the more compelling musical effect is brought on by proceeding directly into the development.

Farrenc’s approach to development renders this section almost more an embellished repeat of the exposition than as a truly independent structure. There are many other examples of this; Brahms would take such an approach to new heights and Schoenberg would catch on and make developing variation his generative principle for composition. Farrenc begins by developing the first them in E-flat major, alternating between the lower strings and the violins with flute. This modulates to A-major at rehearsal F (again, a distance of a tritone!) where the second theme is developed.

At 229 we finally get some true counterpoint, something that, admittedly, this symphony has lacked (many pieces get by with much less, but it is a refreshing change of texture, nonetheless). Beginning with the second theme, Farrenc switches to imitation in the primary theme at rehearsal G, first in F-major but moving its way to a dominant prolongation on D7 at measure 260. The symphony starts the “retransition” at 268, making its way through more contrapuntal heads of the first theme, until a “false” recapitulation begins at 289. This false recapitulation is interesting in the pantheon of false recaps: instead of being in a foreign key area, it states the entirety of the first part of the primary theme in the correct key, but with the wrong instruments, harmonies, and with the wrong texture. Entirely given to a solo clarinet, oboes, and a bassoon, it is false because of the insecurity of the atmosphere and unexpected colors provided to the melody. While not quite as deceptive as the the "errant" horn entrance in Beethoven's Eroica, it is still a sophisticated subversion of expectation. The true recapitulation hits with the full force of the strings at rehearsal H, in the correct key of g minor.

I will not waste time by going through the recapitulation in as much detail as the exposition or development. Suffice to say that “sonata principle” is observed in that the secondary themes are “corrected” to appear in the tonic (or close to) key. Our odd D-flat moment is now in B-flat major, the relative major; the second theme is G-major, the parallel major. The third/second-second theme is in g minor, as are the closing themes. The odd shift to G-flat major is exchanged for a much more expected turn towards the submediant E-flat major. The codetta is in g minor and begins a soft-wind down of the piece.

At N, the Coda to the movement begins, the tempo kicking up with a piu presto and bursting into rising and falling scales before developing small bits and pieces of the movement that preceded. I will take a moment here again to editorialize: there are a number of awkward transitions in the world of orchestral music (looking at you, Robert Schumann), and this numbers among them. However, at this point most musicians have agreed upon methodologies for expressively coaxing these transitions to feel effective, meaningful, and, well, natural. Listening to the recordings currently available, I’m not sure this transition has found a good solution yet. My own sense is a slight ritard just before the piu presto as the music diminuendos may help hide this seam. It is expressively within the bounds of what the moment can handle, and while unmarked, I think would be within the grounds of a performer’s prerogative. Whatever the case, when done metronomically and with a strict, literalist interpretation of the page, the Coda feels almost out of place.

The symphony ends powerfully, strokes of g minor, c minor and D major closing out the composition. There is some passing semblance to the ending of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in the midst of all this motion, but it is extremely unlikely that Brahms would have heard or seen this piece (although possibly he may have heard her name, given Schumann’s review of her, her renowned chamber music, and her position as a piano teacher at the conservatoire). More likely, similarities between the two compositions can be grounded in their shared musical predecessors and linguistics.


The second movement is a beautiful, simple arioso, described by the reviewer of the premiere as “noble, elevated, religious and graceful at the same time” (again, see the preface of the new edition). It is, like many symphonic second movements of the time, one part aria form, one part theme and variations, and one part sonatina.

After a two bar E-flat major introduction in the horns, bassoon, and timpani, the next 32 bars of the composition can be read as two 8-bar phrases with written out repeats. Each time, the first statement of the music is played by the woodwinds, then the second by the strings. This elides to new material at rehearsal A, where gentle triplets in the strings (first violins, then lows) close out the A-section of the form. A three measure transition takes place at measure 43, then the music modulates to B-flat major (the dominant) for the gentle, falling triplets of the second theme.

This second theme gives way to a transition from rehearsal B to a climax in D-flat major (!) 4 bars later. This collapses to B-flat major again at measure 62, and we have reached a sort of “closing” theme (to look at this as a mini-sonata). This closing phrase repeats twice, the second time with a one bar extension, and then a measure 71 a fanfare like motive in the violas starts a three-bar transition towards a development.

The miniature development appears gloriously at rehearsal C, now in G major, with the primary theme sung out on the violins, horns calling out a fanfare in the middle ground, and violas and cellos brushing away at flowing arpeggios. This first section transitions through six bars of piano woodwind duets, before again returning to a fortissimo dynamic, now with the timpani for added effect. The music here is overdotted arpeggios, which suggest not only the first movement of this symphony but the clear influence of the Andante from Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E-flat major. Not at all coincidentally, the relevant passage is also in c-minor. Once more, small and skillful influences and imitations are not a question of quality. Otherwise, we would have already dumped half the canon out the window.

Six bars before rehearsal D, wandering eighth notes form a retransition to the recapitulation and the home key of E-flat major. The melody here omits the “written-out repeat” structure of the exposition; instead, Farrenc keeps the melody exclusively in the strings, who perform each half of the phrase once.

There’s not much else of structural interest to note; a small coda starts at 144 with the Timpani now holding down the fanfare motif from earlier. Farrenc makes the counter-intuitive yet common decision, one bar before the end, to add the entirety of the available orchestra just as she reaches the soft cadential moment. It is potentially problematic, but beautifully warm if done sensitively. It is certainly not nearly as challenging as similar places in a piece such as Verdi’s Requiem, where a much larger orchestra is expected to enter as the nadir of already soft diminuendi.


The third movement is a straightforward scherzo-trio-scherzo, a structure that while toyed with by Beethoven wasn’t really “revolutionized” until much, much later in the 19th century (again, we’re just going to leave Berlioz in his odd, opiate-fueled corner). Farrenc keeps things exciting by adding or deleting bars to extend or truncate regular phrases, and often puts sforzandi on weak bars of the phrases to confuse the phrase beginning.

The first phrase is 12-bars long, followed by a 14-bar phrase that features prominent sforzandi and octaves that keep the phrase off-balance. This second part is iterated as an 11-bar variant in G-major, then again as a 16-bar version in F-major, cadencing in D-minor. Like all good scherzi, this whole A-section repeats.

The B-section of the scherzo repeats the main thematic material, only now in B-flat major and with a soaring, sustained violin melody over the top. This 16-bar phrase is followed by an 8 bar phrase now in the distant key of E-major (note the tritone!) which begins to modulate over the following phrases until arriving in the key of C major at rehearsal B. Here woodwind chords float and sequence over cello arpeggios, rising and modulating until a retransition at 122. This returns the music to the main theme at in g minor at rehearsal C. After repeating the A-section with some variation, a 12-bar codetta closes off the scherzo section at 209 with a first and second repeat ending.

The trio at D is fascinating because of its hypermetric construction: whereas the tempo remains the same, the music is constructed almost wholly in dotted half notes, and rather than the expected four-bar phrases is built in six bar phrases. This lends the music a feeling almost as though it is in a giant 3/2 or 6/4, but without any change to the underlying meter. This trio is, like its scherzo torso, divided into two parts: an A-section (the 6-bar phrases) that proceeds until rehearsal E (60 bars) and a B-section where the music returns to 4 or 8-bar phrases.

F is one-part coda, one-part tail to the trio’s B-section. After briefly repeating the B-section thematic material at 323, a true coda to the trio takes place as measure 353. Again, as with all good scherzi even through the time of Bruckner, a da capo is printed at the end of the movement, ending just before the beginning of the trio. Again, my usual policy is to take the repeats even on the da capo of a scherzo or minuet, but I think the music gains more by omitting them in this case than keeping them.


The final movement of the symphony begins with a dramatic, dance-like theme in unison themes. A brief note about the history of symphonic construction: until the time of Beethoven, the most important movement of a symphony was the first movement. It was here where the majority of development would take place and the composer would present their most compelling dramatic and technical ideas. While there are a few exceptions to this idea—the coda to the finale Mozart’s Jupiter symphony being a compelling example—it was really Beethoven who started to shift the rhetorical weight towards the end of the symphonic structure. Think of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, when all the tension of the preceding movements is finally confronted; or, of course, the ending of the 9th symphony, which still flummoxes and inspires musicians, scholars, and audiences today. It took a while, however, for this methodology to gain wide-spread usage. Whilst Robert Schumann employed this model, Felix Mendelssohn did not. Farrenc certainly belongs to the more “classicist” model of composition. Her finale here, while brisk and exciting and fitting to complete the work, is not as important to her structure as the first. This is important to note, because we cannot place upon it a weight of expectation that would not have been present in her initial concept for the piece.

It seems that Farrenc had an abundance of themes for this movement. After the first 8 bars (serving double duty as a first theme and introduction), a second primary theme happens at measure 9. At A, a third primary theme manifests itself. It is not until B that what we might call a “transitional” passage appears, with a sort of “Mannheim rocket” arpeggio ratcheting up the dramatic tension. All of this, of course, given its "primary" nature, is in g-minor.

C is the true second theme, identifiable as such by the new key of B-flat major. Like the harmonic wanderings of the first movement, a detour towards G-flat is made at rehearsal G when slow, soft descending scales are intoned in the violas and lower strings. Measure 115 is the coda, where B-flat again reigns supreme and rocketing arpeggios come to the fore. A codetta transitions us to the development four bars before F.

Like the first movement, Farrenc begins her development by working with her primary theme. Unusually, she begins right off in the key of B major (the “Neapolitan” chord, for all you theorists and ice cream lovers). Throughout the development the theme is passed between upper and lower strings, and from the get-go the phrase length is truncated to the asymmetrical 7 bars. The second theme of the exposition gets its turn in the development at rehearsal H, presented simply in the oboes and clarinets and fading, almost operatically, into silence. This gesture repeats itself, and then increases its development contrapuntally at measure 196. Again of interest is the phrase length decreases to three bars, out of step with the more regular 4-bar phrases in the exposition.

Measure 273 is the usual recapitulation, but unusually, starts with the second primary theme, rather than the first. Otherwise, the recap behaves as expected, parroting the exposition quite exactly, only transitioning to G-major for the second theme rather than B-flat major.

The Coda at N begins in the key of D-flat major (again, the tritone!), but modulates back towards g minor over the course of the next 22 bars. The “first” primary theme that was omitted earlier gets placed into the music now at rehearsal O, but as this is structurally the coda, spins itself out across a long crescendo until arriving with a harsh fully diminished harmony at measure 367. The rest of the movement pushes us back into the key of g minor, and three broad, dramatic strokes close out the movement.

Another note about the history of the symphony in the broader world: symphonies in minor keys, particularly after Beethoven, usually end in major keys. This is not always the case, but the idea of darkness giving way to light, suffering giving way to glory, is one that lingered well into the late 19th-century and beyond. Farrenc makes, then, the less expected decision of keeping her symphony “in the dark,” as it were, all the way until the end. However, I would theorize that this is again related to Farrenc’s “classical” modelling. Certainly, the closest kin to this symphony in the “canonic” repertoire—one that the last movement bears a striking thematic relationship to—is Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in g-minor, which also refuses to end "in the light." But again, this work would have been pre-Beethoven, and Farrenc seems to be taking many of her cues from this style or architecture.

Overall, Farrenc’s inventions in structure are mostly based upon her unusual choices of keys to dwell upon. It is a symphony that straddles equally the classical and romantic temperaments, although more often than not comes down on the side of classicism. Does that make this work old-fashioned for its time, conservative, or academic? Not necessarily—again, the works of Mendelssohn and Schumann, her closest “canonic” kin working in the traditionally symphonic idiom, often play the same game. There is an often unstated reality, however, than Farrenc had limited room to work in: had she or any other female composer done something truly bizarre or revolutionary, as had her peer Berlioz, she would have been called a mad-woman, and her invention discredited on behalf of her femininity. Only by proving that she could follow the rules men had set for her would she be able to gain their approval, and so her games had to be played in more subtle, sophisticated manners—modulating to tritone keys, for instance.

Harmonic language

Louise Farrenc’s individual harmonies are mostly run-of-the-mill early romantic/late classical sonorities. As noted above, it is Farrenc’s use of modulation that sets her apart from mere “textbook” writing. Augmented sixths and secondary chords are used plentifully to get her where she is determined to go. On the whole, Farrenc sounds in her time rather than before or after it, and this is not a bad thing. Too often we only pay attention to music that arrived ahead of schedule, while never noting what it was that was scheduled in the first place.


While it’s true that during the common practice period rhythm and meter were essentially secondary elements, it is here Farrenc provides the most invention and interest. Hemiolas and beat displacements saturate the first movement: bars that sound like they begin on the second beat, rather than the first; passages in 3/4 that sound like 6/8; passages in 3/4 with 2/4 across them. The third movement has plentiful hemiolas as well, and the trio's adjustment of the hypermeter is itself a sort of "meter-change" at a time when doing so was less common. It is refreshing, however, to look at pieces that take rhythm so seriously; many pieces from the 19th century (even in the beloved canon) completely ignore it as a side-effect of harmony.


Farrenc makes effective use of the orchestra within the aesthetic of 19th-century composition. At the time, Berlioz was really the only one who had really started to explore the colors of the orchestra for colors’ sake (I apologize to keep bringing him up, but discussing French composers in the mid-19th century he becomes a rather sizeable elephant in the room). But that does not mean that Farrenc is not thinking of which instruments take which material, and her approach is deft, elegant, and lucid. The Woodwinds are given extensive time in which to shine in each movement, and doublings across families are extraordinarily rare. Overall, one feels not just the influence of Beethoven and the classicists, but the influence of her experience composing chamber music. As she only scored for two horns in the symphony, the brass writing is restrained, and the timpani used structurally and tastefully (even being tacit the third movement).


book spine.jpg

This symphony was Farrenc’s final orchestral composition, perhaps due to frustration with a lack of performance opportunities for new symphonic works (a problem still present today). The remainder of her output is devoted to piano and chamber music. It is actually among these later works that her greatest success as a composer may be found: her critically acclaimed Nonet, op. 38, from 1849 (two years after the Third Symphony premiered). While not perhaps central to her repertoire, the symphonic works earlier are quite worthy of investigation, reflecting skill, facility, and imagination.

There are, of course, innumerable “forgotten” composers who each was skilled in his or her own way; usually, the fact that we can remember someone such as Farrenc is testament enough to their gifting. The Grove dictionary, however, says it best when it states:

“Farrenc’s role in music history carries significance beyond that ordinarily accorded to competent minor composers. Having worked in a society whose women musicians attained prominence mainly as performers, and in a cultural environment which valued only theatre and salon music, she merits recognition as a pioneering scholar and a forerunner of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.”

Farrenc seems to have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance of late, including a performance of this work on National Women’s Day at the Barbican, scheduled programming of this work as a studio concert from the BBC Philharmonic on April 25th, and a place in the 2018-19 season of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Is this piece one that needs to be repeated every season by every orchestra? No, but no piece is (looking at you, orchestras who think the “canon” is only five pieces). It is absolutely worthy of being heard, and I encourage any conductor who hears about it to study and make their own call.

As there are a number of real-world examples of institutions programming this piece, I would encourage those interested in figuring out how this might look on a full concert to go investigate some of the above listed sources. That being said, here are my thoughts on the matter. While it is easy to compare Farrenc stylistically to Beethoven or Mozart, I am not sure putting them on the same program is complementary, just as a program of Beethoven and Mozart isn't always complementary (it can be done, but the pieces must be chosen carefully). I don't think setting this symphony next to Berlioz is all that effective as well, although again, it can be done. The music that I think fits best with this would be early classical music (CPE Bach, Michael Haydn) and fin-de-siecle French music (particularly the equally pianistic/classicist Ravel). Prokofiev's Classical Symphony could be a nice touch.

We will dig into Farrenc's other orchestral works later, but having listened to each and giving a glance over the scores (which arrived by the time I put the final touches on this entry!), I am confident in saying they will live up to or exceed this final orchestral work.

As always, let me know what you think about Louise Farrenc, her Third Symphony, or the Fair Hearing Project by commenting below. For our next piece, we will jump across the Atlantic and leap forward about seventy years to look at Music for Small Orchestra by the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Make sure to show up for this one—it’s a real gem, and extremely useful (conductors: ever wish you had a piece that wasn’t a rental that matches the instrumentation to Appalachian Spring and was by a female composer/early modernist icon?)

Keep listening!



Farrenc, Louise; ed. Heitmann. Symphony No. 3 g-Moll op. 36. Florian Noetzel Verlag, Wilhelmshaven, 1998.

Friedland, Bea. "Farrenc family." Grove Music Online. 13 Apr. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000009336.

Service, Tom. “Symphony guide: Louise Farrenc’s Third.” The Guardian. 24 Jun. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/jun/24/symphony-guide-louise-farrenc-third-symphony-tom-service


Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, Christoph König. Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Naxos 8.573706, 1 Apr 2018, CD.

Johannes Goritzki, Radio Philharmonie Hannover des NDR. Louise Farrenc Symphonies 1 & 3. CPO 999603-2, 1998, CD.

Joseph Bozich1 Comment