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The Trailblazing Women of 19th Century Paris

Cecile Chaminade, Pauline Viardot, and Louise Farrenc
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Cecile Chaminade, Pauline Viardot, and Louise Farrenc

Let's take a look at a remarkable trio of composer-performers whose music deserves a closer listen. Pauline Viardot, Louise Farrenc, and Cécile Chaminade all grew up in Paris, one of the centers of the classical music world in the 19th and 20th centuries. All were famous in their day, earning high praise from other well-known composers and musicians (and even royalty!). And yet their music has too often been passed over, neglected in favor of their (usually male) contemporaries. From fighting for equal pay to playing a private show for Queen Victoria to making Charles Dickens weep, their stories and their music are well worth reviving.

Pauline Viardot (1821-1910)

Clara Schumann called her “the most brilliant woman I have ever met.” Hector Berlioz said she was “one of the greatest artists who comes to mind in the past and present history of music.” Charles Dickens was brought to tears by one of her performances, later telling her that “there is no genius in this world more sympathetic and responsive than yours.”

Pauline Viardot’s biography reads like a Rolodex of famous 19th-century people, and just about every one of them seems to have been starstruck by her and her talent. Born in Paris to Spanish parents, her father, mother, and older sister were all well-known singers. The young Pauline spent some of her early childhood touring North America with her family’s opera troupe. As a girl she wanted to break with the family tradition and become a pianist. She studied under Franz Liszt and frequently played duets with Frederic Chopin, who encouraged her interest in composition. But by her late teens she was an opera star herself, known as much for her captivating acting ability as her beguiling voice.

Viardot retired from singing at the young age of 42, devoting the rest of her life to teaching and hosting musical gatherings, called “salons.” Held twice a week, they brought the best and brightest musicians and composers together for informal performances. She became a linchpin of the Parisian music scene, helping cultivate a whole generation of talent. Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky are just some of the many young composers whose music she championed.

Her students and salons also gave her ready performers and venues for her compositions. Her Six Pieces for Violin and Piano (1874) were written for her son, a 17-year-old budding violin virtuoso. It’s easy to imagine sitting back on a Sunday afternoon at one of her salons, drink in hand, and getting wrapped up in her catchy melodies.

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)

“Impostor syndrome,” the nagging feeling that you don’t deserve the accolades and accomplishments you’ve earned, can be hard to overcome. Louise Farrenc had a lot of people in her life who saw her immense talent. Her parents made sure that she received an excellent musical education. As a teenage piano prodigy, she toured France and played in front of adoring audiences. Her husband was a source of constant encouragement, pushing her to compose and publish. Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann were among the many reviewers who gave her music high marks.

Yet by all accounts, Farrenc herself was modest and self-critical. Even after she and her husband opened a publishing company, he had to all but force her to publish her own music. In an era when male composers were often portrayed as godlike geniuses, Farrenc was much more humble. The music itself, rather than fame or recognition, seemed to be what compelled her to keep writing.

Farrenc was a more forceful self-advocate in the fight for equal pay. When she was hired as a professor at the Paris Conservatory, she was the only woman in her department. Even less-prominent and less-senior men had higher salaries than Farrenc, one of the most well-known musicians in Paris. Finally, seven years after taking the job, she wrote a letter to the director with a list of the men making more than her, asking that the Conservatory “agree to fix [her] fees at the same level as these gentlemen.” She got the raise, and spent another 23 years as a professor, the only woman the Conservatory had in that role in the entire 19th century.

That letter came hot on the heels of one of the biggest successes of her composing career, the premiere of her Nonet. Combining a wind quintet and a string quartet, her Nonet was an instant hit in Paris and across Europe. It’s easy to hear why!

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1910)

If you were an American woman at the turn of the 20th century with an interest in classical music, you’d likely join a “Chaminade Club,” where members would gather to discuss and play her music. Women inspired by Cécile Chaminade founded over 200 of these clubs across the country.* Admiration didn’t just come from America; Queen Victoria invited Chaminade to play at Windsor Castle. She was seen by her fans as a woman persevering to fulfill her potential despite a society that only saw her limits.

She certainly had plenty to persevere against. The mostly-male music critics of the day disparaged her work as “sentimental” and “superficial,” mostly enjoyed by “those whose knowledge and taste in music are not erudite.” One reviewer writing for the New York Evening Post went so far as to say that a performance “confirmed the conviction held by many that while women may some day vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.” Even Chaminade’s own father forbade her from studying at the Paris Conservatory, thinking that it wasn’t “becoming” for a young woman to do so.

Luckily, others saw her talent. As an eight-year-old she impressed Georges Bizet with music she had composed. By her early 20s she was touring as a performer and publishing her own compositions. Her solo piano pieces were especially popular with the burgeoning market of amateur pianists looking for inventive music to play at home. In honor of her many musical achievements, she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France’s highest honor, in 1913.

Chaminade’s greatest success was her Scarf Dance, which reportedly sold over 5 million copies in her lifetime. Light and lively, it was originally written for her ballet Callirhoe. In a solo piano arrangement, it became her signature piece as she charmed audiences across Europe and America. And we’re lucky enough to be able to hear her play it herself, in a recording from 1924:

Mark Viner’s album of Chaminade piano music was one of our CDs of the Week in 2019.

*While only five Chaminade clubs remain today, two of them are in New England! The Chaminade Club of Providence, Rhode Island was founded in 1905, and the Chaminade Music Club of Attleboro followed in 1912. Both continue to bring classical music, including the music of their namesake, to local fans.

Tyler Alderson is a Host and Producer for CRB.