in context: charles valentin alkan

by pieces of moments

History is full of supporting characters, or characters that faded into a supporting role over the passage of time. It has always seemed a shame to me that, really, only a tiny handful of composers from the past continue to have their pieces performed or known. Granted, for some there is good reason in that their works are great, but not excellent; it is a fine line that divides the two, but it is also deep, and many get lost in the void trying to traverse it.

One of those was an interesting character named Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888). He was not only a contemporary of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), but also friends with both pianists/composers. One of the many “child prodigies” in history, he enrolled at the famed Paris Conservatoire at age six. Twenty years later he was famous, performing along with Chopin. As many pianists of his era he was also a composer, though it appears he rarely ever performed his own compositions in recital. Rather, he was a champion of Franz Schubert and the late piano sonatas of Beethoven. That fact may not seem stunning to our Schubert and Beethoven saturated modern ears, but back in the day, that would have put him out on a limb performing more rarefied literature than some others.

Perhaps one of the reasons some fade whilst others brighten over the passage of time, is some simply do not chase after permanence. Alkan became more and more reclusive, gave fewer recitals, and basically began to step into the background of his own accord. This photograph of Alkan proves that a picture is worth a thousand words. He doesn’t want his face to be seen or known, but his existence is, nonetheless, documented and preserved.


For the music nerds out there, I found this to be one of the most intriguing bits of information on Alkan (quoted from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians article on Alkan by Hugh Macdonald):

A surprising aspect of Alkan’s style is its technical rigour, for he wrote not as a pianist with a keyboard before him but with the cerebral exactness of someone for whom the notation is more important than the sound. He refused to spell enharmonically and facilitate reading, with the result that at least twice he was compelled to use a notation for a triple sharp; he was scrupulous in his part-writing.

“refused to spell enharmonically…at least twice he was compelled to use a notation for a triple sharp.” Wow. Guess the same spirit that gave us the backside photo was at play when he was notating, too.

If you are living in the UK, you can hear some Alkan performed in concert (which, the rarity of that alone should get you to the concert hall) by Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall, November 13th. You can thank pianist James Rhodes for the heads up on that concert listing.

Now, I know you’ve got to be wondering what Alkan’s music is like. Lucky you, you can find out right here (performed by Mr. Hamelin himself):

I’m not going to talk at all about how I feel about his compositions because I want you to decide for yourself how it hits you. Make sure to click around though and listen to more than one selection, if you are going to give him a legit analysis. Regardless of how you react to the sounds, whether you like it or dislike it, by hearing what contemporaries of the “major” composers were writing, you re-establish historical context. I know I don’t like being taken out of context, so why would they?