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 http://www.alkansociety.org
The next meeting is on 18 March and continuing the French theme, is about great French singers of the past.