Charles-ValentinAlkan (1813 -1888)
PreludesOp. 31, Nos. 1, 13, 17 & 25
ImpromptusOp. 32 (II), Nos. 1 & 3
Lechemin de fer, Op. 27
EtudesOp. 35, Nos. 6, 8 & 12
Marche funebre: Andantino, Op.
EsquissesOp. 63, Nos. 1- 5, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 32, 38, 43 & 48
Scherzodiabolico, Op. 39, No.3
The name of Alkan wasonce joined with Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Brahms, as one of the greatestcomposers for the piano in the age that followed the death of Beethoven. At thesame time he won praise as one of the most remarkable pianists of his time.
Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn fromsociety .In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his music, ledat the beginning of the twentieth century by Busoni and furthered by otherchampions. This interest has yet to result in any widespread attention to Alkanamong performers, for whom he often presents very considerable technicalproblems.
Alkan was born Charles-ValentinMorhange, the eldest of the five children of Alkan Morhange, a music-teacherwhose forebears had settled in Paris in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of thecity. He and his brothers chose to use their father's name in preference to thefamily name and all were to make their careers in music in one way or another.
Charles-Valentin Alkan made his first concert appearance as a violinist at theage of seven in 1821. At the Conservatoire he was a piano pupil of JosephZimmermann, future father-in-law of Gounod and teacher of Bizet and CesarFranck, and won considerable success as a child prodigy, exciting even theadmiration of Cherubini. He enjoyed the particular favour of aristocraticpatrons, including the Princess de la Moskova and other members of the Russiancircle in Paris, his success prejudicedto his momentary chagrin by the first appearance of the young Liszt. WithChopin he felt greater affinity. The two had much in common, and both were tobecome respected in t Paris as private teachers to the aristocracy, althoughChopin never isolated himself from society , as Alkan was to, and his musicalinnovations were to take another form.
In the 1830s, hisstudies at the Conservatoire now concluded with great distinction, Alkansettled at an apartment in the Place d'Orleans. He continued to busy himself asa composer, chiefly for the piano, pub1ishing music that Schumann, indulging inhis early musical journalism, found false and unnatural, these the least of hisstrictures. Certainly Schumann himself would have found insuperable technicaldifficulties in the Troi5 Grandes Etude5 of 1838, one for left hand, onefor right hand, and the third for both hands together. In March, 1838, after a seriesof concert appearances in Paris which had estab1ished him as a performer of the first rank,Alkan appeared in a recital with Chopin, before an enthusiastic audience. Thisseems to have been his last public concert for some six years, during which itwas rumoured that a possible affaire with a married woman had led to the birthof a son, Elie Miriam Delaborde, the future pianist and editor of some ofAlkan's music.
Alkan's concertappearances in 1844 and 1845 were followed by a further long period of silenceand withdrawal from the concert platform. 1848 in particular brought asignificant disappointment. Considered by many, and certainly by himself, asthe clear successor to Zirnmermann at the Conservatoire, he was passed over bythe new Director, Auber, who chose to appoint instead Marmontel, a youngermusician for whom Alkan had little respect, as is apparent from the letters hewrote supporting his own candidature, enlisting George Sand among others in hiscause. He gave a concert in May, 1849, his last for the next 25 years.
Isolating himself fromthe general musical life of Paris, Alkan continued in the fo11owing years to teach and,intermittently, to compose. Protected from unwanted visitors by a vigilantconcierge, he lived a hypochondriac bachelor existence of obvious eccentricity,continuing his long-standing interest in the scriptures and translating fromthe Hebrew Talmud and later from the Syriac version of the New Testament.
In 1873, however, he emergedfrom retirement to offer a series of 5ix Petits Concerts de Musique Classiqueat the Salons Erard, with which he had had an enduring association. As in his programmesof forty years before, or those of Rubinstein's historical concerts, he offereda remarkable conspectus of keyboard music, played with a classical precisionand a technique only slightly affected by his years. These concert series seemto have continued intermittently until the time of his death in 1888, while thecurious could hear him every Monday and Thursday at the Salle Erard, where aninstrument was at his disposal.
The manner of Alkan'sdeath has been a matter of some speculation. Although the narrative has beenromantica11y ernbe11ished, it seems probable that he died as the result of adomestic accident, when a cupboard or book-case fe11 on him. Whether or not hedied clutching a copy of the Talmud, retrieved from the top shelf of theco11apsing book-case, is open to doubt. The story emphasises, at least, Alkan'sreligious and literary interests, offering an interesting inverse para11el tothe flamboyant career of his contemporary Liszt, tuned Abbe, who had died inlodgings in Bayreuth, attended by one of his young female pupils, in 1886.
The 25 Preludes, Opus31, in all major and minor keys, appeared in 1847, designed for piano ororgan, or, no doubt, for the instrument that Alkan particularly favoured, the pedalieror pianoforte with pedal-board, for which Schumann and Gounod, among others,had written. The Preludes go through f al124 keys, returning to a finalPrayerin the affirmative key of C major. The first of the set opensmeditatively, while the prelude inspired by the Song of Songs (1 t wasasleep, but my heart watched) is mystical in its approach. Reve d'amour r(Dream of Love) is more sensuous in feeling, fo11owed in the present selectionby the final Prayer.
Alkan published a firstset of Impromptus in 1848, fo11owed in 1849 by a second group, exploringunusual rhythms, with a quintuple time signature, based on the Basquezorcico.
Le chemin de fer, Op. 27, The Railway, waspublished in 1844, celebrating in musical terms a railway journey, a relativenovelty of the period and something that was to provide material over the yearsfor a number of other composers, intrigued by the rhythm of the machine and thewhistle of the engine. Railway journeys of this kind presented possibledangers, and of these Alkan is we11 aware, as the train gathers speed, beforecoming to a halt in safety.
The Douze etudes danstous les tons majeurs, Opus 35, twelve studies in a11 major keys,belong to an earl