I’ve been learning the piano part of the first piano quintet by Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French woman composer who enjoyed a fine reputation in her day as a concert pianist and teacher as well as a composer. Unfortunately, at a time when the French music-loving public was fixated upon operas, Madame Farrenc never wrote an opera. She loved instrumental music, and as Saint-Saens complained at one point, anyone who wrote instrumental music in Paris was fated to have to put on the concert themselves, inviting their friends and the press, for the general public wasn’t interested.
Louise Farrenc made her name as a pianist, and when she turned to teaching and was appointed to a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, she had great success with her students, many of whom won prizes and became professional musicians. Despite her success and the esteem in which she was held, you may not be suprised to learn that for over a decade Louise Farrenc was paid less than her male contemporaries were.
Learning the piano part of her first quintet reminds me of similar experiences with learning the piano parts of works by Hummel, Berwald, Spohr and early Mendelssohn. It’s a style of writing where the pianist is constantly rushing up and down the keyboard in fluent arpeggios, brilliant scales in thirds, arpeggios in contrary motion and the like. The fingering needs to be worked out in detail in order for the figuration to be secure at the fast tempi the composer indicates.
To my ear this kind of 19th century piano writing, often in sharp contrast to the long melodic lines in the other parts, is like the kind of shading or cross-hatching that an artist would use to give contour to a line drawing. Most of it is, in fact, just virtuosic decoration of the harmony. It’s harmonically simple, but mechanically tricky. As such, the piano writing falls into the category of ‘more difficult than it sounds’, a category which every pianist will recognise with a sigh.