Charles-Valentin Alkan: the hermit who composed devilishly difficult piano works
Very unusually among the virtuoso composer-pianists of the 19th century, Charles-Valentin Alkan spent much of his life as an apparent recluse.
He shunned the concert platform in favour of keeping his own company, reading, studying and creating some of the most spectacularly demanding piano music ever written.
Choosing a life like this meant that rumours flourished about him during his lifetime, as they have ever since. For instance, the story that he died when reaching for a volume at the top of one of his bookshelves, which then toppled forwards and crushed him, is now known to be a fabrication.
When was Charles-Valentin Alkan born?
Alkan was born in Paris on 30 November in 1813 as Charles-Valentin Morhange. He was one of six children of a music teacher who lived and worked in Le Marais, Paris’s Jewish quarter; Alkan took his surname from his father’s first name.
Where did he study?
His musical ability was phenomenal from the start: he entered the Paris Conservatoire aged five, and gave his first public concert (as a violinist) at seven. His keyboard skills were so extraordinary that by his early teens he already had a concert-giving career, and was also helping out with teaching at his father’s school, where one of his younger pupils was Antoine Marmontel (of whom more later).
In 1835 his first substantially individual piano work appeared – 12 Caprices, published in four sets of three pieces each, and presenting the Classically tinged brand of Romanticism that Alkan was to spend a lifetime developing.
Besides the free-flowing bravura figuration that came to him so naturally, the music has moments of striking originality too – as in the Andante first piece of the second set, featuring the rapidly rippling, repeated-note patterns that were less difficult to execute on the pianos of the time than on today’s instruments, with their heavier keyboard action. By now Alkan was a Parisian celebrity, admired and liked by Liszt, Chopin, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas and other cultural leading lights of the day.
What was he like?
Then came the first of the periods of withdrawal from the limelight which gave him his reputation as a hermit.
The birth of his son may or may not have had something to do with this. Elie-Miriam Delaborde – born in 1839, and himself to become a concert pianist – was the illegitimate child of one of Alkan’s private pupils.
While the paternal parentage was never confirmed (nor denied), the situation may perhaps have complicated a streak in Alkan’s temperament that was already making performing in public difficult for him. His letters to friends indicate an often relentless self-analysis that was liable to bring about a mood where life itself could seem empty, even pointless.
Alkan’s need for stay-at-home solitude may have related to some kind of depressive, obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the evidence we have is unclear. In company, his manner seems to have been generally straightforward and likeable: there was a warm friendship with Chopin, who shared something of Alkan’s resistance to public appearances, himself preferring to play in semi-private salons.
The few colleagues who managed to visit Alkan at home noticed no obvious signs of disconnected eccentricity – certainly nothing like the partly full chamber pot once observed under Beethoven’s piano, or Satie’s vast collection of umbrellas.
What has Alkan composed?
In 1844 Alkan returned to the concert platform, and unveiled some of the music he had been writing down. This included two sizeable chamber works, a violin-and-piano Grand Duo and a Piano Trio, and an off-the-wall item for solo piano: Le chemin de fer appears to be the first time that a steam engine had been depicted in music, in this case with spectacular brilliance.
The Trois grandes études consisted of a Fantaisie for the left hand alone (extremely difficult), an Introduction and Variations for the right hand (if anything even more so), and a torrential Rondo-Toccata ‘pour les mains réunies’. And this period saw the creation of two major masterworks.
Each of the four movements of the Grande sonate ‘Les quatre âges’ depicts a different stage in the life of its imaginary hero, at the ages of 20, 30 (‘Quasi-Faust’), 40 (‘A Happy Household’) and 50 (‘Prometheus Bound’). ‘Quasi-Faust’ features a fugal section in eight parts, of such notational and technical complexity that Alkan wrote out a parallel ‘facilitated version’, which is at least marginally less difficult to decipher.
This formidable achievement was completed alongside the 12 Etudes dans les tons mineurs – one in each of the 12 minor keys, and between them exploring the full spectrum of Alkan’s creative world. No. 8 (Lento appassionato), which sounds outwardly like an elegant, lute-like anticipation of the Fêtes galantes sound-world of Fauré and Debussy, again has each hand often playing alone, demanding an octopus-like stretch from both. And the driving ferocity of No. 5 (Allegro barbaro) prefigures Prokofiev’s keyboard style by more than half a century. Meanwhile Alkan was becoming increasingly interested in his Jewish heritage.
Among the 25 Preludes Op. 31 for piano or organ are the unmistakably Jewish melodic inflections of No. 6, Ancienne mélodie du synagogue. An orchestral Symphony in B minor, known to have been completed but later lost, opened with an Adagio section headed in Hebrew with the words from the Book of Genesis: ‘And God said, Let there be light.’ Shorter works from this period include the Hebrew invocation Etz chajjim hi, set in a simple, prayer-like manner for four solo voices.
Then came a crisis. When the head of the Paris Conservatoire’s piano department was due to retire, Alkan put himself forward for the post; but in 1848 it was awarded to his former pupil, Antoine Marmontel.
Life as a recluse
Alkan was so outraged that he again removed himself from public life. This time the withdrawal lasted for over 20 years, of which the first decade was much taken up with work on a colossal counterpart to the earlier set of minor-key studies. Published in 1857, the 12 Etudes dans les tons majeurs encompass, among much else, a self-contained four-movement piano Symphony of impressive sweep and grandeur.
There is also a three-movement Concerto – combining the genre’s solo piano and orchestral aspects, and technically and structurally so demanding (the first movement alone lasts for nearly 30 minutes) that few pianists have ever performed it. The set concludes with Le festin d’Esope, a super-virtuoso sequence of 25 variations and a coda, wittily portraying a panoply of the animals depicted in Aesop’s fables.
During these years Alkan is known to have translated the entire Old and New Testaments of the Bible into French from the Syriac language (still spoken today in parts of Syria and Iraq, and descended from the Aramaic which Jesus himself would have spoken).
These too have been lost – probably among the huge collection of books and manuscripts which Alkan left at his death to his brother Napoléon, and which disappeared without trace soon after. A one-act opera, mentioned in a letter in 1847 as ‘completed’, has also vanished. Alkan emerged now and again from his self-imposed solitude – taking up and then soon abandoning an organist post at the local Synagogue de Nazareth, and giving a recital on the newly created pédalier (a piano with an extra set of organ-like pedals).
Other works from this chapter include the three-movement Sonatine; five sets of Chants (Songs), Alkan’s take on Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words following the same sequence of keys and moods; and a remarkable set of 48 Esquisses (Sketches), some of which seem to look decades into the future, towards the plucked-out-of-the-air manner of Ives.
In 1873 Alkan once again returned to performing, initiating a sequence of ‘Petits Concerts’ involving chosen colleagues, among them Delaborde and another virtuoso composer-pianist from the younger generation, Camille Saint-Saëns.
When did Alkan die?
The programmes included mostly Bach and the classical composers (generally nothing later than Mendelssohn), and seem to have brought about a measure of old-age fulfilment for Alkan before his death at home in March 1888, aged 74 – perhaps even a sense of ‘job done’.
His body was found in the kitchen under a coat rack, hence the popular belief that he was killed by a falling bookcase.
His last known composition is a piano Toccatina dating from 1872 – the year of Delaborde’s appointment as piano director at the Paris Conservatoire, which must have given Alkan some feeling of consolation after his own disappointment a quarter-century earlier.
And he had evidently never lost his sense of humour, to judge from the scrupulously melodramatic Marcia funèbre, sulla morte d’un Pappagallo, written in 1859 for two sopranos, tenor, bass, three oboes and bassoon. A Funeral March in C minor for a dead parrot? Clue: Delaborde kept a famously large collection of parrots and cockatoos…