Charles-Valentin Alkan was one of the great composer/pianists of the nineteenth century and a major influence on many subsequent musicians. He wrote some of the most unusual and technically difficult music of his time, an output that no less an authority than Ferruccio Busoni called "the greatest achievement in piano music after Liszt."
Alkan was an extraordinary prodigy: he entered the Paris Conservatoire when he was 6 years old and won first prizes for solfège at age 7, for piano at 11, for harmony at 14, and for organ at 21. He quickly made a name for himself in the Paris salons as a gifted young pianist and played some London concerts in 1833 to great acclaim. From 1829 to 1836, he was a part-time teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, but he never joined the regular staff.
Alkan was well known in intellectual circles -- he counted among his friends Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Frédéric Chopin -- but he was always something of an introvert and misanthrope; at age 25 he dropped out of society, the first of his frequent and sometimes lengthy withdrawals. Over the next 35 years he appeared in public only rarely; not very much is known about his life in those years. Only in 1873 did he make a return to the concert stage, playing a series of Petits concerts at the Salle Erard (where he also taught classes in the afternoons).
Alkan was devoted to his Jewish faith and was quite a scholar on the subject. One curious, but untrue, legend has it that he died when, as he reached for a copy of the Talmud on top of a large shelf, the bookcase fell over and he was crushed to death.
Alkan published his first music at age 14; ultimately his catalog extended to 76 opus numbers, most of them works for solo piano. The earliest of his compositions were in the familiar forms of the day: opera paraphrases and collections of studies that showed off his unusual facility. His compositions started to get more ambitious in the 1840s -- the harmonies bolder, the rhythms more irregular -- and many of the works called for extravagant, nearly superhuman technique. These works range from larger works like the Grande sonate "Les quatre âges," Op. 33 (1848), to shorter pieces like Le chemin de fer, Op. 27 (1844), the first musical portrait of the railroad, and the humorous and peculiar Funeral March for a Dead Parrot.
Perhaps his most ambitious opus is the set of Twelve Études in all the minor keys, Op. 39 (1857). The 12 pieces aggregate to form (in order) a four-movement symphony, a three-movement concerto, a set of variations, an overture, and three independent pieces. They are very demanding of a performer -- pianist Raymond Lewenthal has called them "a ride in Hell." The first movement of the concerto alone contains 1,343 measures (more than the entirety of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata) and lasts half an hour.
Alkan played his own works very rarely in public. He did however play a range of music unusual for his time, including the then-unfashionable late Beethoven sonatas, various Schubert sonatas, and much Baroque music. His playing style was noted for its clarity, its restraint in rhythm and dynamics, and its intellectual quality.
Alkan and his music were largely neglected during his lifetime, and he was nearly forgotten upon his death. But with the attention of Ferruccio Busoni, Kaikhosru Sorabji, Egon Petri, and other giants of the early-to-middle twentieth century, as well as the later advocacy via recordings of Petri, Lewenthal, and Ronald Smith, Alkan's position in music history has been assured.