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.

Next meeting

The next meeting of the Salisbury Recorded Music Society will be held on Monday 1 April 2019 at 7.30pm in our usual venue, when we shall be very pleased to welcome our own Ed Tinline who will be presenting an evening on the trumpet and other brass instruments.

I hope you will be able to come on Monday.

New seasons programme!

The new seasons programme has now been agreed and contains an exciting mix of composers and presentations.  Starting on Monday 17th of September with Anthony Powell’s intriguingly entitled: One composer’s journey into silence and then to resignation. 

The programme includes presentations on Debussy, Ravel and Elgar among others.  There is also an evening on the music of Valentin Alkan – a ‘neglected genius’ as the presenter will say.  We heard something of him last season so hearing more will be interesting.  There are many such composers who were immensely popular in their day but are almost unheard of now.

We will be posting details nearer the time so keep an eye on this site to see what’s happening.

If you are not a member details are on a tab at the top of the site and remember parking is easy and free.

Entry is £3 for visitors.

The full programme can be downloaded from the link below and may we ask members to print off a copy and possibly give it to someone who might be interested.  We are printing the leaflets so they should be available next week in Oxfam and the TIC (if it hasn’t disappeared that is).

Programme 2018/19 (pdf)

Most people have pdf now but if not, you can get a free download here

Peter Curbishley

End of season meeting

New style for our final meeting

The final meeting of the current season of Salisbury Recorded Music Society will be held, tonight, Monday 4th June 2018 at 7.30pm in the usual venue.  The evening will be in the form of a concert, for which Paul Goldman has assembled three historic recordings:

– Bellini: “Norma” Sinfonia/Overture. Vittorio Gui conducting the Orchestra EIAR, Turin, 1937

– Elgar: Cello Concerto. Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting The New Symphony Orchestra, London, 1928

– Beethoven: Symphony No 7. Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, New York, 1969

We hope to see you on Monday and that you will enjoy this rather different style of evening to conclude our 2017-18 season.

June concert

Notice of the June meeting on 4th

The June meeting will be a little different from normal and will be in the form of a concert of three works;

  • Bellini – “ Norma” Sinfonia/Overture – Vittorio Gui conducting the Orchestra EIAR, Turin, 1937 -Historic recording
  • Elgar Cello Concerto, Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting The New Symphony Orchestra, London, 1928 – Historic recording
  • Beethoven Symphony No 7 Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, New York, 1969 – Historic recording.

Normal place and normal time with easy parking.  If you don’t know where we are go to the ‘Find us’ tab on the home page where there is a map and a postcode.  Only £3 for non-members