Charles Valentin Alkan30 nov 1813 (Paris) - 29 mar 1888 (Paris)
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Charles-Valentin Alkan[a] (30 November 1813 – 29 March 1888) was a French composer and one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his day. His attachment to his Jewish origins is displayed both in his life and his work. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, earning many awards, and as an adult became a famous virtuoso and teacher. Although early in his life he was socially active and good friends with prominent musicians and artists including Eugène Delacroix, Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, he gradually withdrew from the concert platform after 1848, and he lived a reclusive life in Paris until his death.
Life and career
Alkan was born Charles-Henri-Valentin Morhange on 30 November 1813 at rue des Blancs-Manteaux in Paris to Alkan Morhange (1780–1855) and Julie Morhange née Abraham. He was the second of six children, one elder sister and four younger brothers, and his father supported the family as the proprietor of a private music school in Le Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris. At an early age, he and his siblings adopted their father's first name as their last (and were known by this during their studies at the Paris Conservatoire and subsequent careers).[a] His brother Napoléon became professor of solfège at the Conservatoire, his brother Maxim had a career writing light music for Parisan theatres, and his sister Céleste was also a pianist.
Charles-Valentin Alkan spent his life in and around Paris. His only known excursions were a concert tour in England in 1833-1834, and a brief visit to Metz on family matters in the 1840s.
Alkan was a child prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, where he studied both piano and organ. He was a favorite of his teacher, Joseph Zimmermann, who also taught Georges Bizet, César Franck, Charles Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas. At the age of seven, he won a first prize for solfège and prizes in piano, harmony, and organ, and Luigi Cherubini, director of the Conservatoire, described his technique and ability as extraordinary. At the age of seven-and-a-half he gave his first public performance, appearing as a violinist; his first public performance as a pianist took place at the age of twelve when he performed several of his own compositions in a concert in a private home. His opus 1 dates from 1828, when he was 14 years old.
In his twenties, he taught and played concerts in elegant social circles, and was a friend of Franz Liszt, George Sand, Victor Hugo and, later, Anton Rubinstein. By 1838, at just 25 years old, Alkan had reached the peak of his career. He often performed with Chopin, and was famed as a virtuoso rivaling Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg, and Friedrich Kalkbrenner. Liszt once stated that Alkan had the finest piano technique of anyone he knew. At this time, (which coincides with the birth and childhood of his presumed son, Élie-Miriam Delaborde), he withdrew into private study and composition for six years, returning to the concert platform in 1844. In the 1840s, he lived next to Frédéric Chopin, and after Chopin died in 1849, many of his students transferred to Alkan.
In 1848 he faced a major disappointment when he was passed over for the position of head of the piano department in the Conservatoire upon Zimmermann's retirement; Alkan expected, and lobbied strongly for, the appointment, but Daniel Auber, the head of the Conservatoire, replaced Zimmermann with Antoine Marmontel, a former pupil of Alkan. Deep disappointment arising from this incident may account for his reluctance to perform in public thereafter. He was appointed organist at the Paris Temple in 1851, but resigned the post almost immediately, and apart from two concerts given in 1853, he withdrew, in spite of his early fame and technical accomplishment, into virtual seclusion for some twenty-five years.
In a letter to Ferdinand Hiller in 1861, Alkan wrote:
Despite this, Alkan had a circle of friends and continued to compose and publish. The German-Scottish musical academic Friedrich Niecks, several days later after being sternly denied access by Alkan's concierge, found Alkan at Erard's. Niecks describes the meeting, saying, "the reception of me was not merely polite but most friendly." He also continued his correspondence with Hiller  and with the Spanish pianist and composer Santiago Masarnau whom he had befriended in Paris and to whom he had dedicated his opus 16 'Trois études de bravoure'.
Jack Gibbons writes of Alkan's personality:
In his last decade Alkan emerged to give a series of 'Petits Concerts' at the Érard piano showrooms, which featured music not only by himself but of his favourite composers from Bach onwards. He was occasionally assisted in these concerts by his siblings. Those attending included Vincent d'Indy.
There are periods of Alkan's life about which little is known, other than that he was immersed in the study of the Bible and the Talmud. It appears from his correspondence with Ferdinand Hiller that Alkan completed a full translation into French of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, from their original languages. This has been completely lost, as have many of Alkan's compositions. Amongst the missing works are some string sextets and a full-scale orchestral symphony, which was described in an article in 1846 by Léon Kreutzer, to whom Alkan had shown the score.
Alkan did not marry, but the pianist Élie-Miriam Delaborde (1839–1913) is generally believed to have been Alkan's son. Some have sought significance in the fact that Delaborde was the maiden name of the mother of Alkan's friend (and sometime lover of Frédéric Chopin) George Sand. Delaborde was taught by Alkan in his youth and performed and edited many of Alkan's works. Like his father, he was a notable pédalier player. After Georges Bizet's death, his widow Geneviève (daughter of the composer Fromental Halévy) had an alliance with Delaborde; indeed there exists the application for registration of a marriage between them, which was never carried out. Interestingly Delaborde, who was a passionate athlete, may have been indirectly responsible for Bizet's death, which followed a swimming competition between the two, as a result of which Bizet caught a chill. Delaborde married late in life, and is not known to have had any children.
Alkan died in Paris on 29 March 1888, at the age of 74. For many years it was believed that his death was caused by a bookcase falling on him in his home, brought down as he reached for a volume of the Talmud from a high shelf. This apocryphal tale, which may have been circulated by Delaborde, is argued against by Hugh Macdonald, who reports the discovery of a contemporary letter by his concièrge explaining that Alkan had been found prostrate in his kitchen, under a porte-parapluie (a heavy coat/umbrella rack), after his concièrge heard him moaning. He had possibly fainted, bringing it down on himself while grabbing out for support. He was reportedly carried to his bedroom and died later that evening. The story of the bookcase may have its roots in a legend told of the Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher, known as 'Shaagat Aryeh', rabbi of Metz, the town from which Alkan's family originated.
A myth also circulates about an alleged obituary of Alkan, cited as fact in Ronald Smith's biography of the composer and since widely quoted, credited to the magazine 'Le Ménéstrel', beginning with the words "Alkan is dead. He had to die in order to prove his existence." No such obituary appeared in 'Le Ménéstrel' and none has been located to date in any other contemporary journal.
Alkan's sister Céleste is also buried in his tomb at Montmartre.
Alkan's remarkable technique is evidenced by the technical and physical demands of his compositions.
However, this technique was not at the expense of musicality. This is exemplified by his more sensitive pieces, (e.g. his Op. 22 Nocturne in B and several of his Esquisses). The composer Vincent d'Indy, recalling Alkan at his mid-sixties with "skinny, hooked fingers" in an empty room with an Erard pedalier playing Bach, said:
Alkan later played Beethoven's Op. 110 sonata, of which d'Indy said:
Another account of his playing, this one by a pupil of Liszt and Alkan towards the end of his life, recalls how Alkan's performance retained "an extraordinarily youthful quality despite his appearance, which was frail and older than his years."
Like Chopin, Alkan wrote almost exclusively for the keyboard, although in Alkan's case this included the organ and the pédalier (a piano with a pedal board), of which he was a noted exponent. Some of his music requires a dazzling virtuosity, calling for extreme velocity, enormous leaps at speed, long stretches of fast repeated notes, and the maintenance of widely-spaced contrapuntal lines. His music has been reviewed as "ferociously" and even "impossibly" difficult to play.
Notable compositions include the Grande sonate Les quatre âges (Op. 33), depicting the Four Ages of Man, and the two sets of etudes in all the major and minor keys (Op. 35 and 39, respectively). These are held by some to surpass even the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in scale and difficulty. The opus 39 collection contains the Symphony for Solo Piano (numbers four, five, six and seven), and the Concerto for Solo Piano (numbers eight, nine and ten).
The Concerto of Op. 39 alone takes nearly an hour to play, and presents a great challenge to the performer.
Marc-André Hamelin said of Alkan's music:
Number twelve of Op. 39 is a set of variations Le festin d'Ésope ("Aesop's Feast"). Alkan also composed other programmatic pieces, such as Le chemin de fer ("The Railroad", Op. 27) which may be the earliest composition giving a musical picture of a steam train.
Alkan's chamber music compositions include a violin sonata, a cello sonata, and a piano trio. One of his most bizarre pieces is the Marcia funebre, sulla morte d'un Pappagallo ("Funeral march on the death of a parrot", 1859), for three oboes, bassoon and voices.
Musically, many of his ideas were unconventional, even innovative. Some of his multi-movement compositions show "progressive tonality" which would have been familiar to the later Danish composer, Carl Nielsen (for example, Alkan's sonata Les quatre âges begins in D major and ends in G-sharp minor). He was rigorous in avoiding enharmonic spelling, occasionally modulating to keys containing double-sharps or double-flats, so pianists are occasionally required to come to terms with distant keys such as E♯ major and the occasional triple-sharp.[b]
Alkan seems to have had few followers, although his admirers included Ferruccio Busoni and Anton Rubinstein. The latter dedicated a concerto to him. The claim that Ernest Fanelli was Alkan's pupil at the Conservatoire  is mistaken, as Fanelli came to the Conservatoire in 1876, long after Alkan had left it.
Debussy and Ravel both studied Alkan's music under teachers who knew Alkan personally and noted their debt to his examples. Alkan's organ compositions were known to César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns and others and their influence can be traced in the French organ school up to the present day. They have only recently been recorded, however; the English organist Kevin Bowyer is committing all of them to disc for the British label Toccata Classics. The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji promoted Alkan's music in his reviews and criticism, and his sixth and final symphony for piano solo, completed in 1976, includes a movement entitled Quasi Alkan.
For much of the 20th century, Alkan's work seemed forgotten. There has been a steady revival of interest in his compositions over the course of the twentieth century. Works by Alkan have been recorded by John Ogdon, Raymond Lewenthal, Ronald Smith, Jack Gibbons, Egon Petri, Mark Latimer, Stephanie McCallum, Alan Weiss, Steven Osborne and Marc-André Hamelin, amongst others. Ronald Stevenson has composed a piano piece Le festin d'Alkan (referring to Alkan's Op. 39 No. 12) and the composer Michael Finnissy has also written piano pieces referring to Alkan, e.g. Alkan-Paganini, no.5 of The History of Photography in Sound. Marc-André Hamelin's Étude no. IV is a moto perpetuo study combining themes from Alkan's Symphony Op. 39 No. 7 and Alkan's own perpetual motion etude Op. 76 No. 3. It is dedicated to Averil Kovacs and François Luguenot, respectively activists in the English and French Alkan Societies. As Hamelin writes in his preface to this étude, the idea to combine these came from the composer Alistair Hinton, the finale of whose Piano Sonata No. 5 (1994–95) includes a substantial section entitled "Alkanique".
This list comprises a selection of some significant premiere and other recordings by musicians who have become closely associated with Alkan's works. A comprehensive discography is available at the Alkan Society website.
Scores and sheet-music
Performances on the Web
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Toccata in D minor
Beethoven, L. van
Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat major
Claremont Piano Trio
2 Nocturnes Op. 27
Quintet for Fl,Ob,Cl,Hn,Bn
Musicians from Marlboro
Nocturne for piano L82
Beethoven, L. van
Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat major
Claremont Piano Trio