When Louise Farrenc wrote this Sextet her career was on a firm footing. A decade previously she had become the first woman to be appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire – one of the most prestigious posts in Europe. And although she had spent most of that decade being paid significantly less than her male counterparts, the triumphant premiere of her recent Nonet had given her the grounds on which she successfully argued for equal pay.
While Farrenc’s Sextet is modeled on Mozart’s Quintet in E flat (performed in the second half of tonight’s concert) it breaks new ground in that it is the first known work for wind quintet and piano. The work remains in safe harmonic territory, but is self-assured and resolute, skillfully orchestrated and melodically fluent.
Although it was initially very well received, the Sextet later fell into neglect, and only recently has it enjoyed something of a renaissance. A number of writers have put forward theories explaining why the Sextet, along with Farrenc’s other works, have not experienced the prolonged popularity they deserve: These include the fact that she did not write for opera – the mode du jour – and therefore did not attain the necessary public profile; that her forte was instrumental music, a genre for which it was difficult to secure performances; and that her work whilst being competent, was less than pioneering and therefore ultimately forgettable. Whatever the contributing factors, Farrenc’s gender surely plays a major role, for the works of female composers have historically been subject to much more rigourous standards of evaluation than those of their male contemporaries. That this Sextet has survived at all, then – and for more than a century and a half – is testament to both Farrenc’s skill as a composer, and to the resolve with which she pursued her art.