Alkan - Who was Alkan?

"Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence. "Alkan, " more than one reader will say "who is Alkan?"

Balthazar Claes, from Alkan's obituary in Le Ménéstrel, 1st April 1888

Alkan the Man

Son of a Jewish schoolmaster, Charles-Valentin Morhange was born on 30th November1813 in Paris, and took his father's first name, Alkan, as his last name. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at six, and made his concert debut at twelve. By the age of twenty-four he had become the leading French pianist, was friends with Chopin and admired by Liszt. By the mid 1830s he was living in the Square d'Orleans, where he kept two apartments, one above the other. After the publication of his Trois Grandes Études Op. 76 in 1838, he disappeared from public view for six years, emerging with the publication of a number of what would become typical Alkan pieces, including the world's first work to depict a railway train, Le Chemin de Fer. He also returned to the concert stage in April of 1844, and the audience for his first recital contained both Chopin and Liszt. From that time onwards, he suffered a number of disappointments, and he became increasingly reclusive. He (not unreasonably) expected to succeed his teacher Joseph Zimmerman as Professeur de Piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but was overlooked for this position in favour of his less talented contemporary Marmontel. He had the misfortune to publish his Grande Sonate Op. 33 (see excerpt below) and the twelve major-key studies in 1848,a time when many people of influence in the musical world had left Paris because of the social upheavals arising from the revolution. Following this, he again withdrew from public view, and re-emerged in 1857 with his magnum opus, Douze Études dans les tons mineurs Op. 39. Having withdrawn from the concert stage in 1855, in 1873 Alkan inaugurated an annual series of recitals devoted almost exclusively to the works of other composers. Unlike Liszt, Alkan did not use his pianistic talents to promote his own music, which is no doubt part of the reason it fell into obscurity after (and even before) his death in 1888.

Alkan's Music

Alkan wrote a large number of 'miniatures' for piano, such as his Esquisses, several volumes of Chants as well as a set of Préludes Op. 31 and the major works referred to above. Alkan's Sonatine Op. 61 is one of his finest pieces, compressing a wealth of originality and invention into just 18 minutes playing time. He also wrote several works for the organ or pedal piano, of which he was a masterly proponent. His major works are characterised by enormous technical difficulties, and great originality of conception. The Op. 76 studies were written respectively for the left, right and both hands re-united, the 'left-handed' form being later taken up by Scriabin, Ravel and Godowsky et al. The Op. 39 studies are gargantuan and unlike any other set of piano studies. Four of the Op. 39 studies together comprise a Symphony for solo piano, three studies comprise a Concerto (with both orchestra and soloist represented using different pianistic styles), and there is also an Overture and a set of variations- Le Festin d'Esope. The whole set, if performed complete, lasts around two hours. The Grande Sonate Op.33 has four movements, each representing a stage in a man's life, at 20,30, 40 and 50 years. The centre-piece of the work is the second movement, Quasi Faust, depicting a man at the height of his powers, being redeemed finally from the influence of the devil, following the exorcism of an eight-part fugue (see extract from the score reproduced below). Each movement is slower than the last, culminating in the final movement, subtitled Prométhée Enchaìne, which is marked Extrêmement Lent. This final movement grinds a desperate and desolate path, the tormented hero prevented from being released into death. Considering the piece was written when Alkan was 35, it turned out to be horribly prophetic for him.

Excerpt from Alkan's Grande Sonate Op. 33 (2nd mvt.)


Jewishness in Alkan's Music

Bob Aroyo of Israel has kindly provided some notes on this subject.


An Alkan Bibliography

Nicolas Bell's excellent Alkan bibliography is now on this site.

Recommended Recordings

The first (and in my view best) complete recording of the Op. 39 studies was made by Ronald Smith in 1977, and this was issued for the first time on CD (APR 7031) a couple of years ago. Ronald Smith also made the first recording (and, it is thought, gave the first public performance) of the Grande Sonate, and has recorded most of Alkan's major works. These have been available from time to time in a variety of compilations on the EMI label, including CDM 7 64280 2, but they tend to disappear again from the catalogue quickly.  Possibly one of the finest examples of Ronald Smith's artistry appears in his recording of all three of Alkan's chamber works with James Clark violin, and Moray Welsh cello. This was released in 2000 on the APR label (APR 7032), although it was actually recorded some ten years earlier by Nimbus.

Another classic Alkan recording that has recently appeared on CD is Raymond Lewenthal's "Piano Music of Alkan" on BMG Classics 09026-63310-2.

The French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has produced a superlative performance of the Concerto (Op. 39 nos. 8-10) on Music and Arts CD 724. He has also recorded both the Grande Sonate and the Sonatine on Hyperion CDA66794, and a live recording (which has to be heard to be believed) of the Op.76 studies ('Marc-André Hamelin Live at the Wigmore Hall' CDA66765). I must also mention his awarding-winning Hyperion recording of the two Concerti da Camera Op. 10 (coupled with two Henselt works) on CDA66717. Last, but not least, he has recently recorded the Symphony and a selection of rarely-recorded shorter works on CDA67218.  The shorter works include Souvenirs: Trois Morceux dans le genre pathetique Op. 15, published in 1837. These largely neglected pieces entitled Aime-moi, Le Vent and Morte contain much original and characteristic piano writing and are well worth hearing.

If you are interested, you can read my comparative review of Hamelin’s recording of the Grande Sonate and the Sonatine by clicking here.

John Ogdon’s 1969 recording of the Concerto was re-released as part of the Philips “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series (Philips 456 913-2). Although I am no great fan of this recording myself (I think it is too slipshod and approximate, particularly in the last movement), it is highly regarded by many people better qualified to judge than I. At the risk of being sued for breach of copyright, I include here the original sleeve liner notes (not provided with the Philips re-issue), written by the distinguished Liszt scholar Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, as it is a superior example of  sleeve note writing with some interesting insights into Alkan and his music.

In passing, Alkan-lovers will be interested in a Naxos disc ( 8.553702) entitled "Alkan: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra", as it claims to include a third Concerto da Camera and what is described as "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 39". In fact the Concerto da Camera is an orchestration by Hugh Macdonald of Alkan's Andante Romantique and the "Concerto" is actually Klindworth's orchestration of the first movement only of the Concerto for solo piano. It is to be hoped that this low-price disc will lead people to discover other Alkan works.

An alternative set of Op. 39 studies comes from Jack Gibbons on ASV CD DCS 227. Jack Gibbons was (probably) the first person to present the complete Op. 39 studies in the same recital, which he gave on 18th January1995 in Oxford. He repeated this programme in London the following year, and I have written a review of this also.

The Marco Polo label has many Alkan recordings, of which I can recommend the Esquisses and the Préludes played by Laurent Martin on 8.223352 and 8.223284 respectively.

If you are looking for recordings of Alkan’s music for organ or pedal-piano, look no further than Kevin Bowyer’s Nimbus disc (NI 5089), which includes the Treize Prières Op. 64, the Impromptu on Luther’s “Un fort rempart est notre Dieu” Op. 69 and the Petits préludes sur les huit gammes du plain-chant.

Finally, a cheap and good introduction to Alkan’s piano music is available on the Naxos label (8.553434), played by Laurent Martin and Bernard Ringeissen. This is a compilation taken from their Marco Polo recordings.

Alkan Society Piano Scholarship

The music department of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge has established a Piano Scholarship in association with the Alkan Society, open to all students at that college. The competition, which was first held on Thursday 1 November 2001, consists of public performances on piano of two works, one of which must be by Alkan (in 2001, it was his Prélude op. 31 No. 6). It is good to see Alkan’s music being promoted to young music students in this way.

There were two candidates for the Alkan piano scholarship, Robin Davis and Benjamin Arnold in 2001.  Both produced sensitive performances of the set Alkan piece.  Robin's selected piece was Chopin's G minor Ballade, while Benjamin chose two short pieces by Messiaen - Pièce Pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas, and Prélude "La Colombe".  The judges were Peter Tregear (Director of Music, Fitzwilliam), Denis New (Life Fellow) and Ronald Smith (President of the Alkan Society).

The scholarship was awarded to Robin Davis, whose playing of both the Alkan and Chopin was judged to be outstanding. He received a cheque for £100.

The winner of the piano scholarship was announced after a recital by legendary pianist and Alkan scholar, Ronald Smith, held on the following evening in the sumptuous acoustics of the Fitzwilliam College Chapel. 

More Information

Ronald Smith wrote two books on Alkan, the first 'Alkan the Enigma' covering his life, and the second 'Alkan. Volume Two: the Music'. Both books are available again as one combined and updated volume published by Kahn and Averill - 432 pages 2nd revised edition (31 October, 2000) ISBN: 1871082730.

The Alkan Society (UK) exists to promote Alkan's music, and is the source of all the information you might need about Alkan, including a Bulletin which contains reviews of concerts, books and discs, as well as details of forthcoming events.

François Lugenot of the French Société Alkan maintains a complete discography of the works of Alkan. He can be contacted at Société Alkan, 9 bis Avenue Médicis, 94100 Saint-Maur-Des-Fossés, France (new address from October 2001). I am not aware of an on-line version of this, but please let me know if one appears.

The Billaudot edition of Alkan's music is published in the UK by United Music Publishers.

This page was last updated on 22 April 2013.