Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Charles-Valentin Alkan

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), one of only two known photos of Alkan
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), one of only two known photos of Alkan

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the strange and by any measure, stupid death of Charles-Valentin Alkan on March 29, 1888. (You needn’t flip back to yesterday’s Music History Monday; we’ll recount Alkan’s “death by umbrella rack” later in this post.)

By the time Charles-Valentin Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, at the age of 74, his decades-long self-imposed isolation had effectively removed him from public consciousness. According to his obituary in the influential Parisian music journal Le Ménestral:

“Charles-Valentin Alkan just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence. [He was] an artist infinitely greater than thousands of his more celebrated and praised contemporaries.”

Damn straight.

Born on November 30, 1813, in Paris, Alkan (born Charles-Valentine Morhange) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer. Pianistically, both Chopin and Liszt considered him their equal.

(According to the English music writer and critic Jeremy Nichols [born 1947], Alkan had:

“a keyboard technique that even Liszt admitted was the greatest he had ever known.”

As I’ve not been able to substantiate that statement from another source, I’ve put it here in parentheses.)

The virtuoso pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow described Alkan as being:

“The [Hector] Berlioz of the piano.”

The über-virtuoso pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni considered Alkan’s Études for piano to be:

“The most significant after Chopin and Liszt.”

Like Chopin, Alkan’s compositional output consists almost entirely of solo piano music. (Alkan did indeed complete what he called a “piano concerto” and a “symphony,” though both are written for solo piano! His “Concerto for Solo Piano” is this post’s featured work.) However, unlike Chopin and Liszt, Alkan’s music fell into obscurity during his lifetime, and was only resurrected in the 1960s. Let’s hear it for resurrections: Alkan’s music is wonderful!

Raymond Lewenthal
Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988)
Ronald Smith (1922-2004)
Ronald Smith (1922-2004)

(A necessary shout out. The two pianists responsible for Alkan’s resurrection were the American pianist Raymond Lewenthal [1923-1988] and the English pianist and composer Ronald Smith [1922-2004]. Additionally, Ronald Smith’s biography of Alkan – Alkan: The Man, The Music; Kahn & Averill, London, 2000 – remains the essential source on his life and his music.)

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