Charles-Valentin Alkan (November 30, 1813–March 29, 1888) was a French composer and one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his day. His compositions for solo piano are among the most difficult ever written and are relatively rarely performed.
Life and career
Alkan was born Charles_Valentin Morhange to a Jewish family in Paris. He and his brothers used their father's first name, Alkan, as their last. Charles-Valentin Alkan spent his life in and around Paris, and died there, 74 years old.
Alkan was a child prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, where he studied both piano and organ. His teachers included 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 at the age of nine, Luigi Cherubini described his technique and ability as extraordinary. His opus 1 dates from 1828, when he was 14 years old.
In his twenties, he played concerts in elegant social circles and taught piano. His friends included Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. By the age of twenty_four, he had built a reputation as one of the great virtuoso pianists of his day, rivalling the other touring virtuoso composer_pianists of the day such as Sigismond Thalberg, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, and even Liszt. He then withdrew into private study, with only occasional forays back into the limelight, for the remainder of his life. In spite of his early fame and technical accomplishment, he spent most of his life in obscurity, performing in public only occasionally. There are periods of his life about which little is known, other than that he was immersed in the study of the Bible and the Talmud.
According to an often-repeated story, possibly apocryphal, Alkan died when a bookshelf collapsed on him in his home — apparently as he reached for a volume of the Talmud, which he had placed on the highest shelf, in the position closest to Heaven.
Like Chopin, Alkan wrote almost exclusively for the piano. His music requires a dazzling and almost inhuman virtuosity to perform. One of his pieces most often heard today is the bizarre Marche funebre sulla morte d'un papagallo (Funeral March for a Parrot), for three oboes, bassoon and voices, which is one of his few non-piano works to survive. Other notable compositions include the Grande Sonate Les Quatre Ages (opus 33), depicting the Four Ages of Man, and the two sets of etudes in all the major and minor keys (opus 35 in the major and opus 39 in the minor). These last match even the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in scale and difficulty. Numbers eight nine and ten of opus 39 together form the Concerto for Solo Piano, which takes nearly an hour to play and presents a great challenge to the performer. Number four, five, six and seven together constitute the Symphony for Solo Piano. He also wrote a set of variations Aesop's Feast and a programmatic piece Le Chemin de fer (1844) which may be the earliest composition giving a musical picture of a railroad.
Musically, many of his ideas were unconventional, even innovative. Some of his multi_movement compositions show "progressive tonality" which would have been familiar to Carl Nielsen (for example, the first chamber concerto begins in A minor and ends in E major). He was rigorous in avoiding enharmonic spelling, occasionally modulating to keys containing double-sharps or double-flats, to the annoyance of pianists who are forced to deal with aberrations such as occasional triple-sharps.
Alkan seems to have had few followers. One composer who does appear to continue Alkan's direction is Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, although Sorabji claimed that his model was Ferruccio Busoni. (Sorabji did, however, promote Alkan's music in his reviews and criticism, and composed a work with a movement "Quasi Alkan".) Alkan had admirers, among them Busoni and Anton Rubinstein, who dedicated a concerto to him.
For many years after his death, Alkan's work was almost completely forgotten. There has been a steady revival of interest in his compositions over the course of the twentieth century. His works have been recorded by John Ogdon, Raymond Lewenthal, Ronald Smith and most recently Marc-André Hamelin, among others. He is buried in the Cimetiere de Montmarte, Paris.
- AlkanSociety.org (http://www.alkansociety.org)
- The Alkan Site (http://alkan.bluestealth.com)
- Alkan biography and recordings (http://www.chopinmusic.net/forum/composer.php?c=alkan)
- Some Alkan sheet music and biography (http://www.musicologie.org/Biographies/alkan_c_v.html)
- The Strange case of Charles-Valentin Alkan (http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/11/may93/alkan.htm)
- More links from the Alkan Society (http://www.alkansociety.org/links.htm)