For every composer considered one of the "great masters" there are at least ten who reach a similar artistic plateau but never make it into the mainstream. Charles-Henri Valentin Alkan Morhange, understandably known by the single name "Alkan," is one of the best examples of a composer who belongs at the top of his class -- in his case, that of Romantic composer-pianists -- but who hovers somewhere between the second and third tier in terms of recognition.
Born into a family of Jewish extraction, Alkan burst onto the scene of the Paris and London salons in the 1820s as a child prodigy. Over the next two decades he gradually withdrew from the recital circuit, owing to competition -- particularly from Franz Liszt, though they were friends -- and from the feeling he had been passed over for an important teaching position at the Paris Conservatoire. While Alkan never became as full-fledged a "concert dropout" as did Liszt from about 1847, he performed very infrequently, sometimes with years passing between groups of recitals. Alkan gave lessons twice a week at the Salle Ã‰rard for many decades; this, the patronage of expatriate Russian ladies of aristocratic bearing, and his publications kept Alkan afloat for the remainder of his 74 years. His needs were not great since he lived an intensely private life absorbed in books and composing, did not maintain a social life, and discouraged visitors. Alkan's peers, including Liszt and Chopin, who along with George Sand would prove Alkan's only close friends, held him in the highest regard. As a pianist, Alkan was an early advocate of the late Beethoven sonatas, of Schubert's music for solo piano, and for Baroque music in transcription.
Alkan's published works run to 76 opus numbers along with several additional pieces, all composed from the late 1820s to the early 1870s; with only one exception, his compositions are known only from published editions. Nearly all of his output is for solo piano, though among notable exceptions is the humorous cantata Marcia funÃ¨bre, sulla morte d'un Papagallo (Funeral March for a Dead Parrot, 1858) which has one the shortest texts of any cantata. "Eh tu dÃ©juner Jaco" -- the French equivalent of the phrase "Polly want a cracker?" -- is the first line, with "Eh de quoi" -- "what was that you said?" -- being the second, an instinctual response to the parrot's unexpected silence. Once discovery of the parrot's mortal disposition is made, there is only one thing a poor parrot owner can say: "Ahhhh--" This goes on for several pages of unwinding, chromatic harmony; Rossini, whose opera La Gazza Ladra inspired this work, probably loved it.
Alkan: Marcia funÃ¨bre, sulla morte d'un Papagallo
Works like the Marcia funÃ¨bre, his transparent and arcane settings of Hebrew service music, music for organ, chamber pieces, and so forth, are like dessert; the solo piano music, though, constitutes the main course in Alkan. It is a banquet indeed -- the Douze Ã‰tudes dans tous les tons mineurs (12 Ã‰tudes in All of the Minor Keys, 1857) contains within it a four-movement symphony, a three-movement concerto, a set of 25 variations entitled "Le Festin d'Ã‰sope" (Aesop's Feast), and three shorter pieces. To perform it all in an evening would require a concert of about 100 minutes duration. The level of difficulty for the pianist in these works is extremely high, a matter further complicated by Alkan's sometimes-thorny approach to counterpoint and his refusal to spell enharmonically (to notate chords for ease of reading, essentially). Yet the music is thoroughly captivating through its power, immediately memorable melodic ideas, cackling, sardonic humor, and the expansive, impressive orchestral sound of Alkan's writing for the piano.
Alkan: Le festin d'Ã‰sope
When Alkan died in 1888, he already had been forgotten and had outlived his contemporaries, including Wagner and Liszt. In the years following his passing, a few pianists took up his cause, mainly Ferruccio Busoni, who programmed Alkan regularly. Those who studied with Busoni or had contact with his work -- Claudio Arrau, Egon Petri, and the pianist-composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, continued to carry the torch, but had little success in restoring Alkan's reputation. Raymond Lewenthal, a highly eccentric American pianist who survived an attack from muggers in Central Park that shattered his hands, learned of Alkan during his retraining with veteran French pianist Alfred Cortot. From the early 1960s, Lewenthal served as a one-man advocacy service for Alkan, presenting programs of his music on New York radio station WBAI, performing Alkan in concerts that were widely praised, recording whole albums of Alkan for RCA Red Seal and Columbia Masterworks, and editing a volume of Alkan's music for Schirmer.
As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, others got into the game, and some were none too well-disposed towards Lewenthal, whose interpretations of Alkan sometimes were at slight variance with the scores, though they had plenty of fiery energy and were, in themselves, engrossing. Lewenthal stood by the story that Alkan's demise came when a bookshelf containing the heavy volumes of the Talmud collapsed onto him, crushing his fragile frame, promising to elaborate on this tale in a long-promised book on the composer. Lewenthal's book never appeared, and judging from the contents of his legacy held at IPAM, appears never to have been really started. Ronald Smith, an English pianist whose interest in Alkan came about at the same time as Lewenthal's, published the first slim biography of Alkan in 1976. One of the Smith's first orders of business was to disprove Lewenthal's fanciful death story.
Smith's playing of Alkan was the opposite of Lewenthal's; it was cool, constrained, emphasizing evenness and classical balance, qualities contemporary reviewers routinely accord to Alkan's own playing; "Clear, pure, brilliant [and] perfectly controlled" wrote one reviewer in 1845. Smith was extremely effective in certain pieces, such as the Grande Sonate, Op. 33 and Chanson de la Folle Au Bord de la Mer (Song of the Mad Woman By the Seashore, Op. 31/1; 1847) that require restraint and understatement. However, Lewenthal's power and rowdy energy in pieces such as Le Tambour bat aux Champs (The Drum Beats in the Fields, Op. 50bis, 1859) sounds apropos, and pianists who have adopted Alkan since the controversy of the 1970s, such as Marc-AndrÃ© Hamelin, Laurent Martin, and Pierre RÃ©ache, usually combine both approaches as the need calls for it.
Lewenthal helped make a case for Alkan as a 19th-century composer, like Charles Ives, who foreshadowed musical developments in the 20th century. Alkan did anticipate the harmonic language of Claude Debussy in Les Soupirs (The Sighs, Op. 63/1/11, 1861), Henry Cowell's notion of "tone clusters" in Les Diablotains (The Little Devils, Op. 63/4/45, 1861), and Gustav Mahler's penchant for pedal tones and clashing contrapuntal lines is found everywhere in Alkan's mature works.
Alkan: Les Soupirs
Alkan: Les Diablotains
Sonatine in A minor, Op. 61: Allegramente
However, most pianists in the post-2000 era do not emphasize Alkan's value as a precursor of modernism so much as his embodiment of the pinnacle of French romantic pianism -- the mantle of Chopin -- as opposed to the German style, Schumann and Brahms, the heirs to Beethoven's legacy, whose works continue to dominate the field. It is puzzling, therefore, that pianists have not adopted Alkan's music more widely because while learning Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9 is a lot more immediate and much easier than taking on the pieces in the Douze Ã‰tudes dans tous les tons mineurs, not all of Alkan's pieces are hard. The works contained in his sets Motifs/Esquisses, Op. 63 (1861) and his late series Recueil de Chants (Opp. 38, 65, 67, 70; 1857-1873) in particular are not especially difficult.
The legacy of both Lewenthal and Smith is that by the time both entered the company of Alkan's parrot, the better part of Alkan's mature output had been recorded. For the listener it is easiest to start with shorter pieces, such as those found on Laurent Martin and Bernard Ringiessen's excellent Naxos disc The Railway; persons wanting to sample longer pieces first may well investigate Marc-AndrÃ© Hamelin's superb Hyperion disc of the Grande Sonate Op. 33. To anyone who appreciates the dark side of romanticism -- Liszt's Totentanz and Funerailles, Chopin's gloomy Funeral March or Ballade in G minor -- Alkan should easily appeal; as far as the dark side of romanticism is concerned, Alkan is like Darth Vader.
Alkan: Le chemin de fer, Op. 27 (The Railway)
Alkan: Symphony for Solo Piano, Op. 39/4-7: Marcia funÃ¨bre