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ClassicsOnline Home » ALKAN: Etudes, Opp. 12 and 76
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
Trois études de bravoure (Improvisations), Op. 12
Le preux (Etude de concert), Op. 17
Le chemin de fer, Op. 27
Trois grandes études pour les mains séparées et réunies, Op.
The name of Alkan was once joined with Chopin, Liszt,
Schumann and Brahms, as one of the greatest composers for the piano in the age
that followed the death of Beethoven. At the same time he won praise as one of
the most remarkable pianists of his time. Nevertheless much of his life was
spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society. In recent years there has
been a revival of interest in his music, led at the beginning of the twentieth
century by Busoni and furthered by other champions. This interest has yet to
result in any widespread attention to Alkan among performers, for whom he often
presents very considerable technical problems.
Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange, the eldest of the
five children of Alkan Morhange, a music-teacher whose forebears had settled in
Paris in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of the city. He and his brothers chose
to use their father's name in preference to the family name and all were to
make their careers in music in one way or another. Charles-Valentin Alkan made
his first concert appearance as a violinist at the age of seven in 1821. At the
Conservatoire he was a piano pupil of Joseph Zimmermann, future father-in-law
of Gounod and teacher of Bizet and César Franck, and won considerable success
as a child prodigy, exciting even the admiration of Cherubini. He enjoyed the
particular favour of aristocratic patrons, including the Princess de la Moskova
and other members of the Russian circle in Paris, his success prejudiced to his
momentary chagrin by the first appearance of the young Liszt. With Chopin he
felt greater affinity. The two had much in common, and both were to become
respected in Paris as private teachers to the aristocracy, although Chopin
never isolated himself from society, as Alkan was to, and his musical
innovations were to take another form.
In the 1830s, his studies at the Conservatoire now concluded
with great distinction, Alkan settied ay an apartmeny in the Place d'Orléans.
He continued to busy himself as a composer, chiefly for the piano, publishing
music that Schumann, indulging in his early musical journalism, found false and
unnatural, these the least of his strictures. Certainly Schumann himself would
have found insuperable technical difficulties in the Trois Grandes Eludes of
1838, one for left hand, one for right hand, and the third for both hands
together. In March, 1838, after a series of concert appearances in Paris which
had established him as a performer of the first rank, Alkan appeared in a
recital with Chopin, before an enthusiastic audience. This seems to have been
his last public concert for some six years, during which it was rumoured that a
possible affaire with a married woman had led to the birth of a son, Elie
Miriam Delaborde, the future pianist and editor of some of Alkan's music.
Alkan's concert appearances in 1844 and 1845 were followed
by a further long period of silence and withdrawal from the concert platform.
1848 in particular brought a significant disappointment. Considered by many,
and certainly by himself, as the clear successor to Zimmermann at the Conservatoire,
he was passed over by the new Director, Auber, who chose to appoint instead Marmontel,
a younger musician for whom Alkan had little respect, as is apparent from the
letters he wrote supporting his own candidature, enlisting George Sand among others
in his cause. He gave a concert in May, 1849, his last for the next 25 years.
Isolating himself from the general musical life of Paris, Alkan
continued in the following years to teach and, intermittently, to compose.
Protected from unwanted visitors by a vigilant concierge, he lived a
hypochondriac bachelor existence of obvious eccentricity, continuing his
long-standing interest in the scriptures and translating from the Hebrew Talmud
and later from the Syriac version of the New Testament. In 1873, however, he
emerged from retirement to offer a series of Six Petits Concerts de Musique Classique
at the Salons Erard, with which he had had an enduring association. As in his programmes
of forty years before, or those of Rubinstein's historical concerts, he offered
a remarkable conspectus of keyboard music, played with a classical precision
and a technique only slightly affected his years. These concert series seem to
have continued intermittently until the time of his death in 1888, while the
curious could hear him every Monday and Thursday at the Salle Erard, where an
instrument was at his disposal.
The manner of Alkan's death has been a matter of some
speculation. Although the narrative has been romantically embellished, it seems
probable that he died as the result of a domestic accident, when a cupboard or
book-case fell on him. Whether or not he died clutching a copy of the Talmud,
retrieved from the top shelf of the collapsing book-case, is open to doubt. The
story emphasises, at least, Alkan's religious and literary interests, offering
an interesting inverse parallel to the flamboyant career of his contemporary Liszt,
turned Abbé, who had died in lodgings in Bayreuth, attended by one of his young
female pupils, in 1886.
In 1837 Alkan published a series of twelve pieces, Trois études
de bravoure or Improvisations, Op. 12, Trois andantes romantiques, Op. 13, Trois
morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15 and Trois études de bravoure (Scherzi),
Op.16. These twelve piano pieces were issued in four volumes under the general
title Douze Caprices. The studies that form the first volume had the earlier
title Improvisations dans le style brillant, aptly descriptive. The first of
the three, with its leaping octaves and sudden modulations, opens the door to a
new world, technically and musically. It is followed by a D flat major
Allegretto, initially a gentle contrast, although it increases in intensity,
before the wistful ending over a sustained pedal-point. The Improvisations end
with a B minor March, transforming what might otherwise have seemed trite
thematic material into something much more imposing.
Le preux, Op. 17, The Valiant Knight, was published in 1844,
and is again a bravura concert study, offering technical challenges to the
performer, something suggested already in the choice of title, with pianist as
champion. Lechemin de fer, Op. 27, The Railway, was also published in
1844,celebrating in musical terms a railway journey, a relative novelty of the
period and something that was to provide material over the years for a number
of other composers, intrigued by the rhythm of the machine and the whistle of
the engine. Railway journeys of this kind presented possible dangers, and of
these Alkan is well aware, as the train gathers by speed, before coming to a
halt in safety.
The Trois grandes études, Op. 76, first appeared in 1838,
although they were subsequently given the opus number of a later period. The
first of these formidable studies is an A flat Fantaisie for left hand alone.
An introduction is developed at an increased speed, leading to an extended
final section, based on a sinister theme announced in lower register octaves.
The second study, a D major Introduction, variations et finale for the right
hand alone, makes still greater technical demands. The opening is in the form
of a solemn introduction, with just the suggestion of a well known Schubert
song in its melodic contour. The gentle theme, in A major, is followed by
variations that explore changes of key and texture. The gentle staccato of the
first leads to a contrapuntal F major second variation, an elaborate third in C
major and a fourth of astonishing virtuosity, the final variation restoring the
original key of A major, before the histrionic D major Finale. Both hands
reunite in the third study in C minor, an extended rondo that presses forward
with the motor impetus of a rapid toccata.
Born in Lyons, Laurent Martin was a pupil of Joseph Benvenuti
and Monique Haas at the Paris Conservatoire, later studying with Pierre Sancan
and winning distinction in a number of international piano competitions. In
1973 he won the Maria Canals Prize in Barcelona, thereafter involving himself
in chamber music and in a solo career. In addition to standard recital and
concerto repertoire Laurent Martin has also paid considerable attention to
unjustly neglected piano music of the 19th century by George Onslow, Alkan,
Alexis de Castillon, and, from the present century, Federico Mompou. In 1988 Valéry
Giscard d'Estaing bestowed on him the Auvergnat de l'année prize for his
promotion of the music of George Onslow and for the creation of the Concerts de
Vollore (1978) and Piano à Riom Festivals (1987).
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ALKAN: Etudes, Opp. 12 and 76