Charles Valentin Alkan Charles Valentin Alkan

The strange case of Charles Valentin Alkan
by James F. Penrose from the New Criterion Online

"The actual stuff and substance of his music... is of such startling oddity,such intensely personal and individual quality, shot through with an eerie,uncanny feeling that makes it of irresistible fascination." - Kaikhosru Sorabji, Mi Contra Fa

For someone thought by Liszt to possess the greatest piano technique of the age and equally esteemed by Busoni as one of the great composers for the piano after Beethoven, Charles Valentin Alkan has certainly fallen on hard times. Even before his death on Holy Thursday, 1888, Alkan had fallen into the unremitting obscurity from which he is only now beginning to emerge. History is happenstance: it can be as harsh to an Alkan as it can be kind to a Satie.

Though apparently a warm, if somewhat shy, young man, Alkan developed into a notorious misanthrope and hermit in his later years. During his periods of seclusion he wrote much of his daunting and beautiful music while slowly shedding his early friendships with Hugo, Delacroix, Sand, Dumas, Liszt, and others in that glittering circle. Late in life, Alkan emerged from his solitude to give a remarkable series of retrospective petits-concerts featuring works by then-disregarded composers such as Rameau, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. At a time when the late Beethoven sonatas were relatively unpopular, Alkan played them in little-attended performances held evenings à 9 heures très-précises in a room at the Salle Erard featuring a grand piano and the piano-pédalier on which Alkan was, by all accounts, an astonishing virtuoso. The controversial circumstances of his death are probably the most remembered thing about him, and the moonstruck explanations surrounding that occasion are legendary.

A new collection of fifteen essays on Alkan, collected and edited by Brigitte François-Sappey, has lately been published in France. [1] It is an interesting and useful guide to the composer and his works, and supplements the two-volume study of Alkan by the British pianist and Alkanomane Ronald Smith (London, 1976 and 1987). Madame François-Sappey has contributed three essays to the collection, the most important being a long study of Alkan's neglected and staggering Grande Sonate. Two pianists, Pierre Réach and Laurent Martin, bring a performer's perspective to the collection. There are analyses of Alkan's chamber music and organ and pédalier works. The book also includes pieces on Alkan's religiousness and his fascination with unusual titles. Hugh MacDonald, whose lively and informed pieces have done much to rekindle interest in Alkan, has contributed an informative piece on Alkan's compositional style.

Valentin Alkan was born in 1813 (the same year as Wagner and Verdi) in the rue de Braque in the Marais district of Paris, the second of six children. His father, Alkan Morhange, was an Ashkenazic Jew who ran a preparatory school in the rue des Blancs-Manteaux, so successful in teaching musical subjects that one writer termed it une annexe juvenile du Conservatoire. The Morhange children all adopted their father's first name as the family patronymic and Charles Valentin signed himself "C. V. Alkan aţné," i.e., Alkan the elder.

Alkan was a prodigy. At six, he was accepted by the Paris Conservatoire. When eight, he won first prize in solfège and at ten, first prize in piano under the suave and ultranationalistic P. J. G. Zimmermann (who later refused to meet the young American prodigy Louis Moreau Gottschalk on the entirely reasonable grounds that l'Amérique n'etait qu'un pays de machines á vapeur). [2] At thirteen, Alkan took first prize in harmony and at twenty he finished things off with a first in organ. Alkan was répétiteur in solfège at the Conservatoire from 1829 to 1836, where he taught Nadia Boulanger's father. (Insofar as the expression "Every little town in America has a Woolworth's and a pupil of Nadia Boulanger" contains a grain of truth, Alkan may have had some small influence on posterity.) His elder sister, Céleste, was admitted to the Conservatoire when she was seven and won the solfège prize at eleven. His brothers were equally talented, three of them taking eight Conservatoire "firsts" and a second place in the Prix de Rome. Two brothers (and Alkan's illegitimate son) finished their careers as professors at the Conservatoire, then, as now, a pinnacle of French musical life.

Zimmermann was more than just Alkan's teacher. He promoted the young man's career by appointing him his assistant. Zimmermann also used his extensive social connections to introduce young Valentin to those soirees where musical reputations were hatched. Alkan seems to have taken to this hothouse world of high society and high culture. He cultivated (and dedicated several works to) des dames très parfumées et froufroutantes and moved into the fashionable Square d'Orléans near Zimmermann, Friedrich W. M. Kalkbrenner, and his new friend Frédéric Chopin. Chopin (who rarely enthused about anyone) was much taken by Alkan's pianism and compositions. Moreover, the two found each other convivial company and occasionally performed together. They also shared piano students from the pampered classes, which arrangement would certainly have benefited Alkan, as lessons with Chopin were exceptionally expensive.

By 1838, Alkan had reached the peak of his acclaim. He also seems to have had increasing difficulty in balancing the demands of popular fame against his musical and pedagogical aspirations and against a fast-developing horror of what he considered the musically commonplace. He reacted to these pressures by dropping out of sight for some six years.

Like many artists, Alkan thrived on contradiction: though a prodigiously gifted performer, he disliked performing; well-connected socially, he was easily disappointed in friendship; though interested in socialism, he worshiped Napoleon III. His penchant for extremes was reflected in his music, which often featured odd titular pairings such as Ma chère Liberté and Ma chère Servitude, Neige et Lave, and Jean qui Pleure and Jean qui Rit. The effect of his artistic and emotional peculiarities on others was heightened by a morbid sensitivity coupled with a whiplash tongue. Alkan seems to have taken as his personal motto the phrase "truth lies in the extremes."

One by one, Alkan resolved these discords. The process was hastened by his failure to be appointed as Zimmermann's successor at the Conservatoire¨undoubtedly because Auber, the director, had been clawed one too many times by the prickly Alkan¨and by the appointment of Antoine Marmontel, a former pupil of Alkan's. The second accelerator was the death of Chopin in November 1849. Alkan went into seclusion again, this time for twenty-five years.

Almost all of Alkan's surviving works are written for the piano. The finest of these were completed during the fifteen years from 1847. During this period, Alkan published the 25 Préludes, the Grande Sonate, the Douze Etudes dans les tons majeurs (the Major Key Etudes), the Douze Etudes dans les tons mineurs (the Minor Key Etudes), the Sonatine, and the forty-eight Esquisses.

Much of Alkan's writing has a melancholy or depressive component, perhaps most effectively described as "cold." It should not be concluded, however, that his music is doleful or mournful. Alkanian melancholia can be, paradoxically, very high-voltage indeed. His intense rhythmic pulse, simultaneous exploitation of the highest and lowest reaches of the keyboard, and generation of almost unbelievable sonorities leave the listener both exhilarated and appalled. At its most icy and magnificent, when the performer is almost prone with the effort of delivering himself of the extreme emotional and physical demands of the music, Alkan generates the most remarkable sensation in his listeners that they have just smelled, or, more precisely, thought that they smelled some deep, smoking thing. The effect of this marvelous writing arrests even a present-day listener; the sadness, the demonism, the omnipresent foreboding, the palpably sinister all gleam darkly through the rush of sound. Alkan's freshness of effect is startling: the conjurings of Weber and Liszt, once so evocative of misfortune, have been rendered in our century as trite and banal through the counterfeiting and reworking of their techniques by advertising, cartoons, and the latest world-première network movie. [3] In listening to Alkan's works, we recall an almost forgotten ability to be stirred by these dark emotions. His obsessional repetitions, the haunting melodies and distressing harmonies, the propulsive power and the almost suffocating intensity of the music deliver a formidable shock.

The sanctum sanctorum of Alkan's music is found in the twelve Minor Key Etudes (published in 1857) and the Grande Sonate (published in 1848). The technical demands of this music are so burdensome that performance is restricted to only a handful of pianists. Notwithstanding the musical literacy of the nineteenth century, one wonders how a music publisher could have ever believed that there was a popular market for works of this difficulty.

The Minor Key Etudes are divided into two books. The first book contains seven studies, including the four constituting the Symphonie. The second book contains the three-movement Concerto, the Ouverture, and the marvelous twelfth etude, Le Festin d'Aesope ("Aesop's Feast").

The first book begins with the aptly titled perpetual-motion study Comme le Vent. A glance at the first bar is sufficient to indicate the pianistic pain that lies ahead: the unusual 2/16 time signature (fast), the injunction Prestissamente (faster), the 160 metronome marking and the pair of thirty-second note triplets (fastest). When the performer realizes that the etude continues for twenty-one pages, [4] the horrified reaction is usually disguised as feigned amusement or eye-rolling scorn. The second and third studies are severe and enigmatic pieces characterized, in the first, by a characteristically quirky Alkanian rhythm and, in the second, by a menacing formality.

The jewels of the first book, however, are the four studies grouped as the Symphonie. At fifty pages, the work is as long as a Liszt transcription of a Beethoven symphony. To analogize the Liszt and Alkan offerings further, however, would be misleading, for although the Liszt transcriptions are masterly undertakings, Liszt himself considered that he was but "an intelligent engraver, a conscientious translator" of the works of others. Alkan's approach was quite different: the Symphonie was conceived and written for piano alone. Alkan hedged the limitations of the piano by his ability to evoke orchestral effects from the keyboard.

The Symphonie begins with the fourth etude, marked Allegro Moderato, featuring a brooding theme developed in his economic and formal style. The Marche Funèbre second movement commences with a grim rustling drumbeat that gives way to a lovely and consoling secondary theme reminiscent of the lyrical treatment in the funeral march of his friend Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata, before returning to the first figure and wandering despondently away. The third movement (the sixth etude) is a jittery Minuet while the Finale is one of Alkan's characteristic and terrifying glories, rhythmically inexorable, implacably developed, and, at its climax, maniacally ferocious.

The second book commences with the three etudes making up the Concerto. This gigantic work is longer than most concerti with orchestra, the first movement alone continuing for seventy-three pages. The tenth etude, marked Allegretto alla Barbaresca, is a thrilling and horripilating polonaise. The eleventh etude, an Ouverture, is the third in the series of quasi-orchestral forms, but is scarcely the curtain-raising crowd-pleaser normally associated with the genre. This intense and inward-looking study hurls the listener in medias res with a theme introduced by rapidly repeated chords. The set concludes with Le Festin d'Aesope, perhaps the best known study of the twelve. In theme-and-variation form, the piece showcases Alkan's uncanny ability to musically describe the extra-musical: a menagerie of dogs, fish, fleas, and birds. It also serves, as Mme François-Sappey notes, as a summary compendium of the pianistic techniques of the preceding eleven studies.

The Grande Sonate was written when Alkan was only thirty-three and shows him to be then possessed of both a fabulous technique and an incomparable sense of personal isolation. Subtitled Les Quatre Ages, each of the four movements (titled "20 years", "30 years: Quasi-Faust", "40 years: Un heureux ménage," and "50 years: Prométhée enchaţné") is a psychological evocation of a period of creative life.

The structure of the Grande Sonate is most unusual, progressing from a brisk Scherzo first movement to an Assez vite second movement, to a slow third movement in G major and thence to a last movement, marked ExtrĹmement lent, in G-sharp minor; the effect of these progressively slower and cooler movements is one of increasing gravity and burden. The Scherzo is disarmingly precocious, rocketing through many key changes before focusing on D-sharp minor, the cool and remote key of the Quasi-Faust second movement. Quasi-Faust is one of the most remarkable pieces of music¨let alone piano music¨of the nineteenth century, with its closely fought struggle between Hell and redemption culminating in an eight-part (not including doublings) fugue, the argument of which is at once cold and deeply exciting. The third movement, with its shy, song-like passages, is something of a balm to the listener still in an uproar from the previous movement. The temperature of the Grande Sonate takes a sharp dive in a last movement of unremitting bleakness, emotionally similar to the last movement of the Chopin Funeral March sonata except for a final, terminally defiant chord.

The unity of the Grande Sonate is reminiscent of the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and predictive of the Liszt B minor Sonata, which are its chief competitors in the category of most-original-work-of-the-age. Mme François-Sappey's long analysis of the piece is a valuable work, despite a perplexing discussion of the numerology behind the opus number of the piece (33), the age of the composer when he wrote it (33), the age of the composer when the piece was published (34), and the age of the composer's father when his elder son was born (34).

Little is known about Alkan's reclusive years when he kept only the most tenuous links with the outside world. We do know, however, that during this time Alkan mastered the pédalier, that curious and defunct child of the piano and organ and a plausible (if typically aberrant) choice of instrument for one who took first prize at the Conservatoire in those more conventional instruments. Alkan played an Erard pédalier, a full grand piano whose bass strings were connected to a thirty-note pedalboard. It was, perhaps, for this reason that Alkan kept two apartments, one on top of the other, as a means of containing the hellish din which was undoubtedly produced when the old man was in full cry.

Alkan also composed for the pédalier, writing a series of thirteen Prières, an Impromptu on A Mighty Fortress, and several other works that range from the religious and muted to the incendiary. Two peculiar works were a set of etudes for feet alone and a remarkably odd duet for four feet, the Bombardo-Carillon. When the pianist Rudolph Ganz was asked to play the Bombardo-Carillon with a female pupil of his, he demurred on the grounds that he did not know the young lady well enough.

Except for the occasional spark of interest in his music, Alkan's sad posterity has been the legend of his death. Joining such illustrious company as Koczwara (autoerotic asphyxia) and Lully (stabbed himself with his baton while conducting), Alkan was reputed to have died by being crushed under his bookcase. Such a lurid demise was obviously ripe for embroidery, and embroidered it was: we learn, for example, that the book Alkan sought was a volume of the Talmud. Along with earlier work by Hugh MacDonald showing the vast implausibility of this scenario, Constance Himmelfarb has unearthed evidence suggesting that in fact Alkan had been ill for some period and that death resulted from an accretion of problems over time rather than from the conventionally grotesque version.

Alkan's most salient trait was his distinctive musical language. Though born in the nineteenth century, his output was not dictated by the conventions of the time: he was deeply comfortable with classical form yet within those constraints he created most unusual works. Though a man who lived much of his life within the disciplines of the past, his idiosyncratic style anticipated twentieth-century composers such as BartÜk, Cowell, Mahler, and Messiaen. Alkan's astonishingly innovative use of traditional musical language may well yet vindicate Busoni's judgment of this often great (but always greatly misunderstood) figure. But we shouldn't hold our collective breath. For many years, the BBC celebrated April Fools' Day with a series of fabricated news stories. One year, the evening news featured a piece about a typical Italian spaghetti farm where happy rustics harvested spaghetti from bushes. A subsequent episode dealt with the impending conversion of Big Ben into a giant digital clock, beeping and blinking the time every quarter hour.

On another occasion, the BBC featured a story about a reclusive French composer who concocted unplayable works for a bizarre instrument that combined an organ pedalboard with a grand piano, who in his younger days was a piano virtuoso of almost superhuman ability, and who died by being crushed by his bookcase when he attempted to remove a book from the top shelf. Chuckling with delight that it had not been tricked again, the public lumped one of the great post-Beethoven composers with spaghetti bushes and other April Fools' Day antics. It seems both unfair and yet somehow appropriate that Alkan should have been buried on April 1, 1888 (coincidentally, Easter Sunday), in Montmartre Cemetery.