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Pianist Joanne Polk Champions Louise Farrenc

Joanne Polk
Courtesy of the Artist
Joanne Polk

Joanne Polk has been standing up for women composers for decades, and her latest recording, inspired by the 19th-century composer and pianist Louise Farrenc, is WCRB’s CD of the Week.

When the brilliant French musician Nadia Boulanger conducted the Boston Symphony in 1938, a reporter asked her how it felt to be the orchestra’s first female conductor. She fired back with a now-famous quip: “I’ve been a woman for a little more than fifty years, and I’ve gotten over my initial astonishment.”


It’s a darn good line to remember when reading about other women with “firsts” in their bios – like French composer/pianist Louise Farrenc. She was the first and only woman of the 19th century to be appointed full professor at the Paris Conservatory. (She was certainly not the first woman in the world to be paid less than her male counterparts. But she protested. And won.)

Farrenc was born in Paris in 1804. Hers was a family of artists, and she grew up surrounded by painters and sculptors. But it was music that touched Louise, and her talent at the piano combined with her interest in composing landed her a spot as a student at the Paris Conservatory when she was just 15. A big career followed, with three popular symphonies, plenty of chamber music, and lots of pieces for solo piano.

This is the kind of composer that fires up pianist Joanne Polk. We can thank her for her attention to women in music – she devoted herself to the complete piano music of the wonderful American composer Amy Beach with recordings known the world over. Before that it was Clara Schumann, and in 2014, Cécile Chaminade. Now, Joanne has a new CD that features variations, etudes, and more by Louise Farrenc, offering a glimpse into the sound world of a strong, imaginative woman who composed alongside giants like Liszt and Chopin.

Listen to the Air Russe Varié (track 1) for the flavor of Farrenc at her most unpredictably sensitive – a set of variations that breathes and sings through the caring intelligence of Joanne Polk’s approach.

Etudes are meant as practice pieces for the uncountable challenges that pianists are constantly running up against. The trick for a composer is to get something recognizably heartfelt to rise to the top. Joanne Polk has picked her favorites from the thirty that Farrenc wrote in 1838. You’ll hear a real sense of joy in No. 11 (track 8), while No. 21 (track 14) radiates the warmth of a hymn, testing the pianist’s ability to control what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background. No. 29 (track 18) is a nicely crafted fugue, with interweaving lines, each of which need enough love to give them independence.

Get to know Joanne Polk a little bit here, playing Amy Beach:

And listen all week to WCRB for pieces by Louise Farrenc!

Listen to a track from the album:

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.