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 http://www.alkansociety.org 

Peter Curbishley


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

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New season kicks off

The new season of the Recorded Music Society kicked off with a flying start with a presentation by Tony Powell entitled One Composer’s journey into silence and then resignation.  He was of course referring to Beethoven who, as is well known, became progressively deaf starting at quite a young age in his 20’s.  By 1816 he had lost nearly all his hearing and visitors had to write down what they wanted to say.

This clearly had a traumatic effect on his musical life.  He was a fine pianist and conductor so he was no longer able to do these things.  Even though the music was in his imagination, not to be able to hear what he had composed was a heavy burden to bear.

Tony attempted to take us through his musical life, starting with the youthful compositions and ending with some of the last completed pieces.  It might be tempting to use the major pieces – the symphonies or concertos for example – but instead he chose the smaller scaled compositions: piano trios; ‘cello sonatas; string quartets and piano sonatas.  These are often give a truer insight into a composer’s ‘soul’ if you will, and are harder to compose.  Some may be surprised at this but even composers like Mozart, who could dash off pieces seemingly at will, found the shorter forms harder to complete sometimes taking months.

The big change in the piano trios Tony explained, between Beethoven and the earlier composers, was the role played by the other two instruments.  With Haydn, they were in support of the piano, in the Beethoven’s work, they played an equal role.  This was particularly evident with Op 1 in G Major composed in 1795 when he was in his 20’s.

The style changed and in Op 70 No 2 composed in 1808 we see a greater intensity.  Events in Europe would no doubt had a role to play, in particular the French Revolution and the increase in enlightenment thinking.

He only wrote 5 ‘cello sonatas and we heard extracts from Op 5; Op 69 and Op 102, again a spread through his lifetime showing stylistic changes between 1797 and 1815.

Next to the string quartets and if you were not a Beethoven scholar and heard string quartet No 6 in B flat Op 18, you might be forgiven in thinking it was a piece by Haydn.  The jaunty theme and structure of the quartet typical of that composer.  You would not make that mistake with the last completed quartet (by Beethoven) No 16 Op 135 composed in 1826 the year before he died.

The piano sonatas were a compositional form Beethoven was most comfortable with, possibly because of his piano playing background.  We heard extracts from three: No 1; No 23 (Appassionata) and No 32.  The increase in intensity and complexity was most marked.

This was a most interesting presentation, showing the changing style of Beethoven’s work over his life.  No doubt events in his life – revolution, the Napoleonic wars for example played their part – but his retreat into an inner life would also have been a powerful influence.

Peter Curbishley


Next meeting 1 October at 7:30 as usual