Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Charles-Valentin Alkan

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

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the anniversary of the birth of Charles-Valentin Alkan on November 30, 1813. A contemporary (and friend) of both Chopin and Liszt, Alkan was – in his lifetime – considered their equal as a pianist and by those (few) who knew his mature music, their near-equal as a composer. Like Chopin, Alkan’s compositional output consists almost entirely of solo piano music. (Alkan did indeed complete a “piano concerto” and a “symphony”, though both are “scored” for solo piano!) However, unlike Chopin and Liszt, Alkan’s music fell into obscurity in the mid-nineteenth century – during Alkan’s lifetime – not to be resurrected until the 1960s. Let’s hear it for resurrections: it is wonderful music!

Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, by which time he was already considered an enigma. In 1877, eleven years before Alkan’s death, Antoine Marmontel – the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatoire – wrote of the then 64-year-old Alkan:

“If there were a strange, eccentric artistic personality to study it must surely be that of Ch-V Alkan, in whom interest is quickened by a screen of mystery and enigma which surrounds him.”

Alkan’s “eccentricities” came to dominate his life starting in 1853, when he was 40 years old. That was when he stopped concertizing, essentially locked himself away and became a recluse: a secretive paranoid with a pathological aversion to social interaction.

In 1880, the music scholar and writer Frederick Niecks wanted to interview Alkan; Niecks was working on a biography of Chopin and sought Alkan’s recollections. Niecks recalled:

“Having heard much of his strange ways and the difficulty of approaching him, I decided to begin by calling at his house. My question whether M. Alkan was at home was answered by the concierge with a decisive ‘No’. To my further enquiry [as to] when he could be found at home the reply was an equally decisive ‘Never.’ And in spite of all the expenditure of diplomacy and eloquence I lavished on the powerful functionary, this was all the knowledge I could obtain.”

Much of what little we know about the last 35 years of Alkan’s life comes from the correspondence he maintained with a very few select friends, correspondence often filled with despair. For example, in a letter written around 1861 to the German composer, pianist, and conductor Ferdinand Hiller Alkan moaned:

“I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous. [I’ve] 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. But enough of my moral infirmities and a thousand pardons for boring you with them.”

The Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum (born 1956), who has recorded much of Alkan’s music, has suggested that he may have suffered from Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsion disorder, or even schizophrenia.

We cannot know for sure, though we do know that he had not always been this way. He was born Charles-Valentin Morhange at 1 Rue de Braque, in Paris’ Jewish community in the Marais district, right across the street from what is today the National Archives. He was the second of six children born to Alkan Morhange and Julie Abraham. Early on, Charles-Valentin and his siblings took their father’s first name – Alkan – as their surname. Musical talent ran deep in the family, and all six of the Alkan children went on to careers in music.

In a house full of talent, Charles-Valentin was the star: a spectacular child prodigy who auditioned into the Paris Conservatoire on July 3, 1819, at the age of 5 years, 7 months…

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