Étude in A minor by Louise Farrenc

Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875), pictured above, was a French Romantic composer. In her lifetime she enjoyed a considerable reputation, and whilst the majority of her compositions are for the piano, her chamber music is generally regarded as her finest work. She eventually opened a publishing house with her flautist husband Aristide Farrenc, and Éditions Farrenc became one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc was a renowned pianist giving concerts throughout France, and her reputation was such that in 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Conservatoire de Paris, a position she held for thirty years and one which was among the most prestigious in Europe.

Farrenc’s music offers a rich Romantic style; melodious with occasional chromaticism. I particularly like, and have enjoyed teaching, the little Étude (or study) in A minor, which has been included in the Grade 5 2019 – 2020 ABRSM piano exam syllabus; it contains a beautiful, wistful lyricism, for which a cantabile touch will be necessary. Set in 6/8, commanding a steady tempo, the work feels somewhat similar to a siciliano; a genre popular during the Baroque period.  I hope the following brief tips and suggestions are helpful for those interested in studying the piece.

Let’s begin with the left hand.  The chordal patterns, which last for the first seven bars returning at bar 13 – 15, demand a soft touch and all notes (within each chord) must sound together. Once you have found secure fingering, balance the fingers over the appropriate notes, resting them on each key without depressing them. Depress the keys within the chord separately at first (No. 1 in Ex. 1), remembering that the slower the depression, the softer the sound:

Ex. 1

Aim to play the top two notes in each chord, carefully balancing them, so that the notes are taken down at precisely the same moment. Now try this with the lower notes (No. 2 in the example above). When playing all three notes, pay special attention to the bottom note of the chords as they will probably demand slightly more weight, so that they balance and sound at exactly the same moment as the upper notes. The fourth and fifth finger generally require greater attention as they often aren’t as firm as the other fingers (Nos. 3 and 4 in Ex. 1).

When negotiating the dotted quaver/semiquaver octave passagework in the left hand at bar 9 – 12, aim to keep the thumb light, with a deeper touch on the lower note. The second semiquaver, in every beat, should also be light (No. 2 in Ex. 2):

Ex. 2

Alberti Bass figurations, or the accompaniment figures, in the left hand from bar 19 onwards will benefit from slow practice. As always, ‘block out’ each pattern, or play the notes of each half bar altogether, allowing for a brief structural overview. When playing as written, a slightly firmer touch will be necessary on the first beat of every group, and a lighter touch will be needed on the thumb (or top note). As this runs contrary to the perceived power in the human hand (the thumb generally feels firmer, and the fourth and fifth fingers feel less secure), you may need to spend some time working at cultivating the lower part. Each semiquaver figuration should ideally be rhythmical.

The right hand contains the melodic material. Phrasing the melody, you might consider the following, which will hopefully provide a starting point for your interpretation:

Ex. 3

Try to use a deeper touch and arm-weight for the necessary cantabile (or ‘singing style’) appropriate for this style. Ornaments, or embellishments, are a feature in the melody line, particularly for bar 9 – 15. Whether tackling the trills (bar 13 – 15), the turns (bar 3, 7 and 21), or the grace notes at bar 9, 10, and 11, a similar practice approach can be useful. To ensure crisp finger work and clear articulation, work very slowly at each note pattern, with a heavy touch, adding a variety of accents. Once each finger has been given a workout, lighten your touch and add speed.

Ensure a real legato in the melodic material as much as possible, even to the point of joining top notes in chords such as at bar 16, 17, 28 and 29.

Semiquaver passages must be even throughout, so that they can fit easily with the left hand. When practising the hands separately and together, I would work with a metronome at first; set the ‘tick’ on a semiquaver pulse, so that you can play every note in the piece to the pulse or tick. Leave out the ornaments until you are secure with the pulse and rhythm. I often count in demisemiquavers with my students; to do this, create a very slow pulse. This will encourage perfect placing of every note, which will be important at corners such as bar 18, where there might be temptation to rush or ‘push’ the solo semiquavers in the right hand.

When practising hands together, balance between the hands will be paramount. Once the left-hand part is secure, bars containing chords (bar 1 – 7 and 12 – 15) must be very soft yet precisely placed. Aim to keep the notes of each chord depressed right until the end of the beat, irrespective of whether they are crotchet or quaver beats. This avoids sound gaps at the ends of each beat; allow the sustaining pedal to be used for resonance as opposed to ‘joining’ chords.

As a general rule, keep the left-hand part soft and light, adding occasional stabs of colour at various points, such as bar 6, beat 1, where the diminished seventh requires more depth, and bar 28 – 30, where the semiquavers become part of the melodic interest and need a deeper touch.

Bar 26 and 27 might need slow practice. There are three musical lines or musical strands here, one in the right hand, and two in the left, so it can be helpful to work at one line at a time (with the correct fingerings), then work at two lines together; you could begin with the right hand and lower part of the left hand, working in all possible combinations until fully comfortable. Whatever practice technique you choose, be sure to keep the longer notes in the left hand (crotchet beats) held for their full value.

I’m fond of encouraging practice using several different speeds. A slow speed for security, followed by a very fast speed (even for slow pieces) to spot any issues and to help to grasp note patterns completely, and finally, the correct speed, which, if the student has worked sufficiently well at the two previous speeds, should feel secure.

This piece requires a soft, subdued character, gently highlighting the melody, therefore the addition of the sustaining pedal will be crucial, but it will need careful control so as not to blur or smudge the musical line.

You can hear this little gem, here:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC1AEhZTINc


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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