Charles Valentin Alkan

An evening of the music of this largely unknown French-Jewish composer

There are many people – even among keen classical music enthusiasts – who have never heard of this composer.  At our meeting last night (4 March 2019) this was corrected with an excellent presentation by Alan Forshaw.

It was perhaps unfortunate that Alkan lived at the time of Liszt and Chopin who dazzled the Paris public with their playing and compositions.  These are now household names and their works regularly played in concerts.  Another factor is that Alkan composed largely for the piano so there are no symphonies, operas or song cycles etc.  This narrowness of repertoire combined with the fiendish difficulty of many of his compositions may have led to his virtual disappearance.

Alkan was a prodigy entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 6 and giving a recital on the violin, at 7.  He was born in 1813 in Paris.  He started composing at 15 and this composition – Variations on a theme from Steibelt’s Orage Concerto – was the first piece to be played.  The second was Concerto da Camera No 2 in C# minor which was first performed in Bath, England which he visited in 1833.

We then heard extracts from Trois Grandes Etudes Nos 1, 2 and 3.  What was notable about these was that No 1 was for the left hand only and No 2 for the right.  Listening to these justifies the word ‘fiendish’.

Although Alkan composed mostly keyboard works, the next piece was the finale from the Piano Trio with strings.  We then heard four examples from Twelve Studies in all the major keys Nos 1, 5, 8 and 12.  These were followed by some extracts from Concerto for solo piano.

Alkan was overlooked by the Conservatoire when they appointed Marmontel – a mediocre talent and former student of Alkan’s – to the post of head of piano studies.  Following this acute disappointment and sleight, Alkan retired from public view for around 20 years although he did continue to compose.

He was a practising Jew being from a devout Jewish family and for a time, was organist at his local synagogue.  He spoke Hebrew.  Some of his later compositions had Jewish themes.

In some senses his life mirrored his compatriot Berlioz – 10 years his senior – who also had problems with the French musical establishment.  Berlioz composed nothing for the piano but some commentators said Alkan was ‘the Berlioz of the piano’.  They differed in that Alkan continued to follow the German tradition whereas Berlioz forged a new individual path whilst continuing to be an admirer of Beethoven.

The chair of the Society, in his vote of thanks said that, like many he suspected in the audience, he had heard little of Alkan, and Alan had shown what a remarkable and individual composer he was.  His music follows fairly straightforward musical forms – variations for example are quite easy to follow – but he pushed his technique to extreme limits.

There is a society devoted to his works 

Peter Curbishley

The next meeting is on 18 March and continuing the French theme, is about great French singers of the past.


2 thoughts on “Charles Valentin Alkan”

  1. Thank you for the excellent report on the meeting about Alkan, which avoided all the usual mistakes and misunderstandings about that remarkable composer. I am sorry that I was not able to come. Many sources even get his name wrong, including an old edition of Grove’s Dictionary, either inserting “Henri” because of the abbreviation “Ch.” for Charles on his scores, or changing his middle name to Victorin. You only need to look at his birth certificate to correct those.

    I discovered his music in the mid-60s when I was at school, in the LP recording by Raymond Lewenthal, and listened intently to Ronald Smith’s series of talks and performances on Radio 3 in 1968. It was hard to find many scores and recordings at first, but they gradually became available after the formation of the Alkan Society in 1977, with Ronald Smith as its first President, and the publication of Smith’s books “Alkan, the Enigma” and “Alkan, the Music” in 1976 and 1987.

    Alkan has been largely ignored by the BBC, apart from being Composer of the Week in 1988, the centenary of his death, and as far as I know the bicentenary of his birth in 2013 received hardly any similar recognition. Yet the ProPiano group in Hamburg mounted a series of “Six Petits Concerts” that year, named after Alkan’s own, in which our own Mark Viner took part. Mark won the inaugural Alkan-Zimmerman competition in Athens in 2012 and is now Chairman of both the Alkan and Liszt Societies, as well as an active performer and recording artist. He gave an extremely rare performance of Alkan’s epic and particularly strange Grande Sonate in London only last Sunday. The BBC has made slight amends more recently, with a feature on “Record Review” last year about the 13-disc Brilliant Classics box set, and a four-page article in the latest BBC Music Magazine (March 2019), which is unfortunately marred by one huge mistake that consistently confuses the major- and minor-key Studies, and several other smaller errors.

    Finally, thank you for the link to the Alkan Society, which is flourishing under its new leadership including the Secretary José López, who has recorded all Alkan’s Mozart transcriptions for Toccata Classics. It organises concerts and gives news of Alkan events round the world. Its Bulletins are available online, and there are plans to publish new editions of long-unavailable works, with the great pianist and Alkan interpreter Marc-André Hamelin on the sub-committee. Peter Grove, Secretary of the Alkan Society 1990-2000.

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments. A shorter version of the web piece went into the Salisbury Journal this week but it is not on line yet. Regards PC

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