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 A look at the extraordinary life, music and legends surrounding Chopin's contemporary,
Charles-Valentin Alkan

(transcript of talk for BBC Radio 3 by Jack Gibbons)

MUSIC PLAYER: Jack Gibbons performing a selection of Alkan:
Comme le vent (Op39 no1), Nocturne Op22, Allegro Barbaro (Op35 no5),
La Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (Op31 no 8)
and Symphony for solo piano 1st movt. (Op39 no4)

[Music player controls below]


The American pianist Oscar Levant once said of George Gershwin that there were so many myths and exaggerated stories about him even the lies about him are being distorted”! The same could be said of Alkan, the French Jewish composer who lived next door to Chopin in Paris in the 1840s and whose own career as a pianist and composer flourished alongside that of both Chopin and Liszt at the beginning of the 19th century. Sadly, despite the extraordinary quality of so much of Alkan’s music, Alkan’s career failed to blossom as it deserved and eventually his work began to slip into obscurity even during his own lifetime.

Alkan pastel portrait from the 1830s

After his death his music continued to be admired and studied by both Debussy and Ravel, and championed by such pianists as Busoni and Rachmaninov. But it wasn’t until the first LPs of his music began to appear in the 1960s (in particular the recordings of Alkan advocates Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith) that the public got a chance to really get to know the music of this most unusual and distinctive musical figure.

When a composer has been neglected for many years, as has been the case of Charles-Valentin Alkan, it's not always easy to reawaken public interest. It's not enough, unfortunately, to let the music simply speak for itself. Something more dramatic is required, particularly in our sound-bite driven media age. Thus in the 1960s, when Alkan's revival began, facts about Alkan’s life and his music often became exaggerated to attract attention and new myths grew up on top of old ones.

There was plenty of ammunition for this colourful embellishing of facts from Alkan himself:

  • Alkan was famously obsessive in his work (he wrote a set of 12 studies within which is contained an entire 3 movement concerto and 4 movement symphony, and he once expressed a desire - unfulfilled - to set the entire Bible to music)

  • Alkan's music, it was claimed, was impossibly difficult to play

  • his output included a Funeral March for a dead parrot

  • Alkan was said by some of his contemporaries to be extremely reclusive

  • the composer also sired an illegitimate son during one of his "less reclusive moments!" [Ronald Smith's quote]

  • Alkan's son apparently kept two apes and a hundred cockatoos in his Paris apartment

  • not least of all these colourful stories was the manner of Alkan's death, which was as apparently as strange as his life!

In dispelling some myths about Alkan one feels almost like a spoil sport, as in the dramatic story of his unusual death, crushed by a falling book case as he reached for a copy of the Talmud from the top shelf. This story has become part of the folklore surrounding Alkan. Sad to say, the story is not true. The truth is more interesting … and more tragic. In fact Alkan's death in 1888 seems to exemplify the tragedy of his life: living alone, it appears that he collapsed and was trapped by a piece of falling furniture for more than 24 hours before being discovered by callers who were able to drag him free. He died in his apartment a few hours after being rescued. The apocryphal story about his being crushed by a falling book case has helped to maintain the myth of a highly eccentric composer.

Alkan, photographed with his back to the camera for superstitious reasons (one of only 2 known photographs of the composer)

Describing someone as 'eccentric' tends to have the side effect of dehumanising them; thus Alkan began to be seen as a strange and even cold individual, whose impossibly difficult piano music was supposed to exhibit the same characteristics, and whose final demise was rather comical. In truth, Alkan was an intelligent, lively, humorous and warm person (all characteristics which feature strongly in his music) whose only crime seems to have been having a vivid imagination, and whose occasional eccentricities (mild when compared with the behaviour of other 'highly-strung' artistes!) stemmed mainly from his hypersensitive nature.

As for Alkan’s 'impossibly difficult' piano scores, frequently described as setting tremendous, sometimes insurmountable technical challenges for the performer: alas this is also part of the Alkan legend that has been so exaggerated that is has possibly now become one of the biggest obstacles to getting his music more widely known. Initially it was a great way to attract publicity when Alkan advocates such as Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith played up the difficulties of the music. It seemed an obvious way of drawing attention to music that is after all often extremely virtuosic in character. It was a great way for the music to get noticed and it worked. But in attracting the public it appears to have scared off pianists! And Alkan needs pianists! The more his music is performed, and the more variety of interpretations his music receives the better it will be for the composer. Make no mistake, Alkan’s music, in his more demanding scores isn’t easy to play, but the truth is that most of the music, while sometimes taxing - particularly from a stamina point of view, is still well within the limits of any virtuoso pianist, and certainly never as demanding to play as the frequently performed studies of Chopin, or concertos of Rachmaninov. It’s not even true, as is sometimes said, that you need large hands to play Alkan: with one or two exceptions the vast majority of Alkan’s chords fall within the span of an octave. And there is also plenty of scope for the amateur pianist. Many of Alkan’s delightful miniatures fall well within the grasp of amateur pianists and can be extremely rewarding to play (to this end the pianist Ronald Smith prepared for publication a delightful collection of 'easy' Alkan pieces, which was put out by Alkan's publishers, Billaudot of Paris).

As with most myths, the truth in Alkan's case is often more interesting than the fiction. And the very stories about Alkan that were exaggerated to attract the public’s attention are now forming an obstacle to the further exploration of this remarkable mind. It's now time, for Alkan’s sake to dispel the myths and let people get to know the real human being behind this remarkable music.

So who really was Alkan? Alkan was born in Paris in 1813. His real name was Charles-Valentin Morhange but he decided to adopt his father’s first name Alkan. Alkan came from a highly musical and talented family and right from a very early age he showed an amazing precociousness, entering the Paris Conservatoire when he was only 6 years old, giving his first public performance at the age of 7 (as a violinist, not as a pianist!), and graduating with first class honours in harmony at the age of 13. By his mid-teens he was composing and performing music that displayed a highly original imagination and a breathtaking keyboard skill. By the 1830s Alkan was emerging as one of the foremost virtuoso pianists of Paris. Its important to remember that Paris at this time, at the beginning of the 19th century, was a cultural magnet for so many European artists. Resident aliens included the likes of Chopin, Liszt, and Hiller and Alkan was soon mixing in their circles, sharing the concert platform with them and becoming a friend, and next door neighbour even, of Chopin. Alkan worshipped Chopin’s personality and music, and no doubt Chopin’s early death at the age of 39 left a big void in Alkan’s life. Unfortunately for Alkan his career also suffered from disadvantages that were beyond his control. Being a 'home-grown' talent in Paris, he didn't benefit from the glamour that came with imported talent, such as a Polish Chopin or a Hungarian Liszt. In addition Alkan was Jewish, at a time when anti-semitism was fairly rife in France. It’s possible Alkan’s career might have developed more if he had spread his wings further afield to other countries, but he enjoyed the musical scene of Paris and was reluctant to move. Perhaps a different, more positive and outward going personality facing these same disadvantages could have overcome them, but Alkan’s highly sensitive and introspective character made the obstacles he encountered in life seem insurmountable. Sadly for us, the failure of Alkan’s career to truly blossom as it deserved was certainly a contributing factor in the neglect his music suffered after his death, even despite the support and admiration of such people such as Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov.

Debussy came across Alkan’s music as a student at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1870s and was extremely fond of Alkan's miniatures for piano. Like Chopin, Alkan composed almost exclusively for the piano. Amongst his 75 opus numbers is the mammoth "Twelve Studies In All The Minor Keys", Opus 39, a work that takes over 2 hours to perform complete and which contains within it a 3 movement Concerto and a four movement Symphony, both for solo piano. But in complete contrast to this work, Alkan also wrote a myriad of delightful miniatures depicting a wide variety of  moods; these are the pieces Debussy was so smitten with. Listening to these pieces it's easy to hear what attracted Debussy to this music, particularly in such a piece as "Les Soupirs" from Alkan's set of 48 Esquisses, with its enticing harmonies, and its musical depiction of a single emotional mood (in this case ‘sighing’). 

Aside from the difficulties Alkan faced in his career, another much more personal event clearly left a big emotional scar on the young composer. On February 8th 1839 a child was born who would later adopt the name Delaborde and become one of France’s most successful pianists. Delaborde’s mother was a wealthy piano pupil of Alkan. Delaborde’s father was not the women’s husband but her teacher Alkan. In a city where scandal was nothing new, the event nevertheless appears to have had a dramatic effect on Alkan’s character. For the next 6 years Alkan’s name is absent from all musical journals, and instead of seeking the limelight Alkan appears to have sought refuge in his compositional studies. The father and son relationship was never spoken of publicly in Paris, and relations between the two were always strained. Yet the young Delaborde was always welcome at Alkan’s home, and after Alkan’s death Delaborde continued to champion his father’s music.

When Alkan wasn’t performing, or grappling with the turmoil of his private life, his main source of income, as with Chopin, came from teaching. For a while he was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Alkan clearly took his teaching seriously and was very much looking forward to the possibility of becoming the head of the piano department at this illustrious institution. He was after all the most distinguished Parisien pianist eligible for the position when it finally became vacant in 1848. But internal politics, anti-semitism, and possibly an underlying awareness of Alkan’s slightly gauche and shy personality led the powers that be to overlook him and appoint Alkan’s own pupil, Marmontel, to the position: Marmontel was a mediocre teacher of solfege who could barely play the piano himself, but thanks to this appointment went on to teach the next generation of French musicians, including Bizet and Debussy, and in 1858 was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award. By contrast Alkan languished, falling back on his private teaching and nursing his wounds.

Alkan was a sociable person with a great sense of humour, who always enjoyed a good intellectual argument with close friends, though he often suffered from acute shyness and introspection. When his career didn’t blossom as he had hoped, together with the turmoil of his private life, his introverted side got the better of him and his introspection invariably turned more often to depression, as he spent more and more time in his own company. His personality was such that he tended to dwell on the sad events of his unfulfilled life. Sometimes he could dispel his moods by his work, sometimes not. As he wrote to his friend Hiller in 1861:

“I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous…nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do… no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see the point or goal”.

It was possibly at times like this that Alkan would have emersed himself in his other great passion outside of music, the study of theology. He had a passionate interest in the Bible, including the New Testament, his Jewish background notwithstanding. His music is filled with religious allusions and he once said if he could have his life over again he would like to set the entire Bible to music! Although his enthusiasm for this daunting project was never realised he did get as far as a complete translation of the Bible from Hebrew to French! Many of Alkan's works with religious themes were written for the pedalier, a piano fitted with the pedal mechanism of an organ so that his feet could be as busy as his hands! Sadly this instrument is now obsolete and a large and important body of Alkan's music cannot thus be heard today (some of Alkan's works for pedalier have been performed on the organ, but the instrument is inappropriate to these unusual pieces which need the sound world of a piano for them to be heard as the composer intended them).

As well as being extremely scholarly and erudite on a vast range of topics, Alkan also had a tremendous sense of humour (something that he was able to share with his neighbour Chopin). Alkan’s ability to convey this humour so successfully in music is almost unique. One of Alkan’s most notorious pieces is his "Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot" (often mistakenly referred to as "Funeral March for a Dead Parrot", though the reference to Monty Python's famously brilliant sketch is tempting to make!). Alkan's own parrot memorial is an incredibly witty, clever, and marvellously silly piece of music, and is actually a parody of Rossini, who had a penchant for parrots. The work is scored for mixed voices and an unusual combination of wind instruments and virtually the sole text is the French equivalent of the phrase “Who’s a pretty Polly?”! Another extremely witty work, though also with great moments of pathos, is Alkan’s "Le Festin d’Esope" (or "Aesop’s Feast"), a set of piano variations in which each variation depicts a different animal or scene from Aesop’s fables. Of course laughter and pathos are two very interlinked human emotions, and not surprisingly, pathos is a characteristic of Alkan’s music that’s always close to the surface. In his marvellous piano prelude, "The Song Of The Mad Woman On The Sea Shore", the intensity of Alkan’s despair, possibly born of his own experiences, is all too vivid.

Away from the vivid imagery of Alkan’s imagination, outwardly his life was very quiet and uneventful. But every once in a while the regular routine of teaching and composing (and translating the Bible) was interrupted by a sudden emergence back onto the concert platform. In fact, later in his life, when the composer was in his 60th decade, he began a regular, annual series of recitals in Paris. His programmes revealed his catholic musical tastes as he performed works from virtually every era of keyboard music, from Couperin, Rameau and J.S. Bach to his contemporaries, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Saints-Saens, and of course his friend Chopin. By contemporary accounts, Alkan's piano-playing was known for its predominantly legato touch and its rhythmic firmness. A particularly vivid account of Alkan as a performer comes from the composer Vincent d'Indy who heard him play Beethoven's Op.110 Sonata in the 1870s:

"I couldn't begin to describe what happened to the great Beethovenian poem — above all, the Arioso and the Fugue, where the melody, penetrating the mystery of Death itself, climbs up to a blaze of light, affected me with an excess of enthusiasm such as I have never experienced since. It had  greater intimacy and was more humanly moving than Liszt's performance...".

Another account of Alkan’s playing, from a pupil of Liszt who heard Alkan play towards the end of his life, describes how Alkan's performance retained an extraordinarily youthful quality despite his appearance, which was frail and older than his years.

Alkan’s last years were lonely and sad. He never married and his loneliness caused him much sorrow and despair. He died alone at the age of 74, not killed by a falling book case, and having outlived his friend and neighbour Chopin by nearly 40 years.

The pianist Raymond Lewenthal wrote in the 1960s: "Alkan seems to have something moving and exciting to say to people of our time. Audiences, sophisticated and unsophisticated, respond to him." In all the years I have been performing Alkan, from the first time I performed the "Concerto For Solo Piano" back in 1978, to the occasion 18 years later, when I gave the first complete concert performances of Alkan’s "Studies in all the Minor Keys, Opus 39" in Oxford, England and at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, I have always been struck at the incredible enthusiasm that has greeted Alkan’s music. Perhaps this is because behind all the virtuosity, and when all the myths are swept away, what is left is a very simple, straight forward and honest voice, a voice that is at the heart of the music and that listeners seem able to respond to instantly. When it comes down to it, what makes Alkan's music so attractive to listeners is not the virtuosity of the piano writing, though that can be exciting, nor the cleverness of the construction, though that might be impressive. No, what grips listeners is the sheer passion of Alkan’s music and the strength of his musical personality.

These notes © 2002 Jack Gibbons

Copies of Jack Gibbons' highly acclaimed 2 CD recording of Alkan's "Studies In The Minor Keys" Op. 39, plus a selection of Alkan's delightful miniatures, can be ordered from's web site which can be visited by clicking on the image below, which takes you to's music sampler page for this disc.

Click on this image to visit's CD store

Critics Choice, Gramophone Dec.1995
HMV Good CD guide recommendation

"Staggering… among the most exhilarating feats of pianism I've heard on disc... Jack Gibbons proves equal to the challenge the music poses not only in terms of virtuosity but, more importantly, artistry… exceptionally impressive"

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