Charles-Valentin Alkan: The Moving, Multifaceted Musicality of a Master Pianist

“I often hear flashes of him coming up in music by late nineteenth-century French composers (including César Franck, who arranged some of his Prières (Op. 64), and even someone as seemingly innocent as Cécile Chaminade, of whom I’m a great admirer) – but who’s to say that they even knew who he was?! We don’t know; it’s very easy to jump to conclusions, and I don’t like doing that”, stated pianist Mark Viner in his 2018 interview with Presto magazine.

Charles Henri Valentin Morhange – known simply as Alkan. Source: Wikipedia

He was talking about the fairly forgotten French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan – of whose music Viner is now, arguably, the most-known champion of, but certainly not the only one. In recent years, pianists in search of something to refresh their repertoire have been stumbling upon, with great excitement, to Alkan’s etudes, sonatas and the excruciatingly demanding Piano concerto. And Viner was at the forefront of this movement; alongside his three-album project with the label Piano Classics, the young pianist was joined by Japanese prodigy Yui Morishita in the quest to bring Alkan’s work to public attention; a select few others (Margit Haider-Dechant, Yury Favorin, Giovanni Bellucci, Paul Wee) also started discretely inserting the composer’s pieces into their concert programmes and album tracklists. 

(Jack Gibbons from BBC 3 places the Alkan revival all the way back in the 60s, when figures such as Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith put out recordings of his work. Still, there’s no denying that from the mid-10s onwards a new generation seems to be taking an interest in the composer’s music – a second Alkan renaissance?) 

Viner’s thought on the relative obscurity of Alkan rings true – there’s plenty of reason to believe musicians of the latter half of the 19th century had scarcely an idea of who the composer was, except maybe hearing his name in passing conversation and stumbling onto it in the odd concert programme.

Even back in his lifetime, Alkan was the pianist’s pianist. There are few precious details that remain known from a life that was mostly shrouded in mystery – even his cause of death remains a point of dispute amongst scholars. The existing records tell of a remarkably talented musician, whose virtuosity was of great renown throughout select, expert, circles, and, very briefly, known to the French public. Records show that both Liszt and Rubinstein made a point of paying the relative recluse visits whenever they were in Paris; Feruccio Busoni ranked him alongside Chopin and – again – Liszt as one of the greatest piano masters of the 19th century. 

Two centuries later, however, the renown has most certainly waned. While Liszt, Chopin, and Klara Schumann have remained, if not household names, then firmly embedded in every music student’s brain, the enigmatic Alkan became such a niche point of interest he is almost contra-canonical.

There are several reasons as to why. 

I

Much of Alkan’s work reveals a composer who lived before his time. Hardly interested in light, salon music, or a career of a concert virtuoso, rife with theatrics and complete with a demanding schedule, Alkan lived a secluded life. His temperament, friends and acquaintances testified, was shy, somewhat nervous and sensitive. (Hugh MacDonald describes it, in no kind terms, as “a mixture perhaps of extreme fastidiousness, hypochondria, persecution mania and diabolism”.) Unsuited for the stage (and devoid of that opportunity for promoting his works), or the mingle-heavy private entertainment scene of the Parisian salons (another good venue for self-promotion), and rejected from a Conservatoire position he was deeply interested in, at the age of 40 the composer withdrew from the public completely. He remained secluded for two decades, during which he not only dedicated himself to religious studies – translating the Bible from Hebrew to French – but also wrote some of his finest compositions. 

II

The last of the two existing photos of the infamous enigma. Source: Wikipedia

Owing much to reason #1 – the composer’s music is twenty different shades of difficult.  Aa a piano virtuoso whose craft critics called a “sensation” and an “explosion”, left to his own devices, Alkan wrote mostly for himself, and therefore his own skill level, making much of his music hardly accessible to younger students. As for the audience, the enigma of Alkan manifests differently; even in the most spectacular displays of technical brilliance it often requires, the composer’s music remains looking within.

Of course, Alkan’s works reflect a common 19th century field of interest – in both overcoming the physical limitations of the player and expanding the expressive opportunities of the piano, which was at the time still an incredibly exciting instrument in the process of modification. (By 1860, through joint effort of performers and engineers, the instrument expanded its register from the five octaves of Mozart’s day to a full seven!) 

Still, Alkan seems intensely dedicated to push both of these ideas further than many of his contemporaries. The technical challenges of his pieces often came at the expense of melody, explaining why much of his work alienates the listener – especially one of the 19th century ear. An early work of his, written in his twenties, sets into motion the drive that fueled much of the composer’s writing later on in life: the piano étude Le chemin de fer, credited as the first piece of music to represent the sounds of the steam engine. 

Alkan’s interest in machine-like precision of the player and eliciting mechanical sounds by musical means, in fact, has its parallels in works of two composers who came much later: Maurice Ravel and Arthur Honegger. As the first composer who took musical inspiration from the world of technology, Alkan set into work some creative ideas which would only fully take fruition at the very beginning of the 20th century, at the dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution, and a sudden, immense interest in the sounds of urbanity, as seen in the works of Italian Futurists and the French avant-garde.

See here the differences and similarities of Honegger’s famous Pacific 231 and Alkan’s Le chemin de fer:

The composer’s piano miniatures, accessible to the intermediate musician and set to exploration of a single mood or musical idea, on the other hand, inspired another 20th century great – Debussy.

III

There is a third reason for Alkan’s dismissal from the repertoire, one that still remains, like much of his life and work, subject to discussion. 

The composer’s Jewish heritage coloured, scholars insist, much of his music. Wikipedia marks him, even, as the first composer to have ever introduced Jewish hymnody into Westernized art music, with his collection of preludes published in 1847. Knowing a bit, as we do, of another Frenchmen from Alkan’s time, Fromental Halévy and his masterwork La Juive (premiered in 1835 at Opera National de Paris), we’re inclined to disagree – but the point still stands. At times of growing anti-Semitic sentiments in France (the Dreyfus affair being the crown-jewel of the zeitgeist, but certainly not an isolated event), Alkan’s religious upbringing, his fluency in Hebrew and the devotion he showed to the exploration of his heritage throughout his life (with more than 70 volumes in Hebrew or relating to Judaism documented as part of his personal library after his death), certainly introduced a few additional hitches in his career, which was, as we have explained before, challenging enough as it was.

It certainly can be argued that Alkan’s intention of incorporating Jewish melos into art music represents more of a studied, intimate labour of love than Halevy’s work, which was subject to a number of operatic conventions and almost had to fulfill a reasonable expectation of musical exoticism in representations of its protagonists. In Alkan’s op. 31, a set of 25 preludes (drawing on the pianist tradition that started with Bach), a trio of pieces (prelude 4-6) represents the diverse ways of transforming the sonority of Jewish hymn into profound piano miniatures. Prelude no. 6, Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue, is the most famous piece of this set, and it’s easy to see why: the signifying coloraturas of Hebrew chant are deftly interwoven into the melody, enriched by the accompanying voices that balance between foreign modes and the familiar minor scale, into a smooth, gentle piano prayer. 

There is no real conclusion to this article, as there is yet no conclusion to the question of whether or not Alkan will ever again enjoy the prestige he did at the height of his popularity as a young Parisian virtuoso. His music stands distinctive to other pianist-slash-composers of his time; it is, at the same time, evocative, sensuous, thrilling and exhausting. 

The average piano enthusiast will probably be deterred from exploring Alkan’s work by the existing mythos that surrounds it, as being demanding to the point of improbability. Jack Gibbons made an attempt to dispel this belief, but the overview of the composer’s detailed scores, filled with chromatic passages, wide-set arpeggios, fast tempi and precise rhythmical demands, still represents a fright. Faced with this density of expression, Robert Schumann himself once disapprovingly described one of Alkan’s early pieces as “nothing is to be found but black on black”.

Viner’s new recordings, like all the others before him, are an attempt to uncover the inherent musicality underneath the semiquaver hieroglyphs; attending to his albums, a new understanding of Alkan’s character might – or might not – slowly dawn on the listener. 

It is up to you to at least give him a fighting chance.

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