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Charles-Valentin Alkan facts for kids

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Charles-Valentin Alkan, c. 1835. Portrait by Édouard Dubufe

Charles-Valentin Alkan ( 30 November 1813 – 29 March 1888) was a French-Jewish composer and virtuoso pianist. At the height of his fame in the 1830s and 1840s he was, alongside his friends and colleagues Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, among the leading pianists in Paris, a city in which he spent virtually his entire life.

Alkan earned many awards at the Conservatoire de Paris, which he entered before he was six. His career in the salons and concert halls of Paris was marked by his occasional long withdrawals from public performance, for personal reasons. Although he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the Parisian artistic world, including Eugène Delacroix and George Sand, from 1848 he began to adopt a reclusive life style, while continuing with his compositions – virtually all of which are for the keyboard. During this period he published, among other works, his collections of large-scale studies in all the major keys (Op. 35) and all the minor keys (Op. 39). The latter includes his Symphony for Solo Piano (Op. 39, nos. 4–7) and Concerto for Solo Piano (Op. 39, nos. 8–10), which are often considered among his masterpieces and are of great musical and technical complexity. Alkan emerged from self-imposed retirement in the 1870s to give a series of recitals that were attended by a new generation of French musicians.

Alkan's attachment to his Jewish origins is displayed both in his life and his work. He was the first composer to incorporate Jewish melodies in art music. Fluent in Hebrew and Greek, he devoted much time to a complete new translation of the Bible into French. This work, like many of his musical compositions, is now lost. Alkan never married, but his presumed son Élie-Miriam Delaborde was, like Alkan, a virtuoso performer on both the piano and the pedal piano, and edited a number of the elder composer's works.

Following his death (which according to persistent but unfounded legend was caused by a falling bookcase), Alkan's music became neglected, supported by only a few musicians including Ferruccio Busoni, Egon Petri and Kaikhosru Sorabji. From the late 1960s onwards, led by Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, many pianists have recorded his music and brought it back into the repertoire.



Alkan's father, Alkan Morhange

Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange on 30 November 1813 at 1, Rue de Braque in Paris to Alkan Morhange (1780–1855) and Julie Morhange, née Abraham. Alkan Morhange was descended from a long-established Jewish Ashkenazic community in the region of Metz; the village of Morhange is located about 30 miles (48 km) from the city of Metz. Charles-Valentin was the second of six children – one elder sister and four younger brothers; his birth certificate indicates that he was named after a neighbour who witnessed the birth.

Alkan Morhange supported the family as a musician and later as the proprietor of a private music school in le Marais, in the Jewish quarter of Paris. At an early age, Charles-Valentin and his siblings adopted their father's first name as their last (and were known by this during their studies at the Conservatoire de Paris and subsequent careers). His brother Napoléon (1826–1906) became professor of solfège at the Conservatoire, his brother Maxim (1818–1897) had a career writing light music for Parisian theatres, and his sister, Céleste (1812–1897), was a singer. His brother Ernest (1816–1876) was a professional flautist, while the youngest brother Gustave (1827–1882) was to publish various dances for the piano.

Prodigy (1819–1831)

Alkan report
Report on Alkan's 1819 solfège audition at the Paris Conservatoire. (Archives Nationales, Paris)
Report on Alkan's 1820 keyboard audition at the Paris Conservatoire. (Archives Nationales, Paris)

Alkan was a child prodigy. He entered the Conservatoire de Paris at an unusually early age, and studied both piano and organ. The records of his auditions survive in the Archives Nationales in Paris. At his solfège audition on 3 July 1819, when he was just over 5 years 7 months, the examiners noted Alkan (who is referred to even at this early date as "Alkan (Valentin)", and whose age is given incorrectly as six-and-a-half) as "having a pretty little voice". The profession of Alkan Morhange is given as "music-paper ruler". At Charles-Valentin's piano audition on 6 October 1820, when he was nearly seven (and where he is named as "Alkan (Morhange) Valentin"), the examiners comment "This child has amazing abilities."

Alkan became a favourite of his teacher at the Conservatoire, Joseph Zimmerman, who also taught Georges Bizet, César Franck, Charles Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas. At the age of seven, Alkan won a first prize for solfège and in later years prizes in piano (1824), harmony (1827, as student of Victor Dourlen), and organ (1834). At the age of seven-and-a-half he gave his first public performance, appearing as a violinist and playing an air and variations by Pierre Rode. Alkan's Opus 1, a set of variations for piano based on a theme by Daniel Steibelt, dates from 1828, when he was 14 years old. At about this time he also undertook teaching duties at his father's school. Antoine Marmontel, one of Charles-Valentin's pupils there, who was later to become his bête noire, wrote of the school:

Young children, mostly Jewish, were given elementary musical instruction and also learnt the first rudiments of French grammar ... [There] I received a few lessons from the young Alkan, four years my senior ... I see once more ... that really parochial environment where the talent of Valentin Alkan was formed and where his hard-working youth blossomed ... It was like a preparatory school, a juvenile annexe of the Conservatoire.

From about 1826 Alkan began to appear as a piano soloist in leading Parisian salons, including those of the Princesse de la Moskova (widow of Marshal Ney), and the Duchesse de Montebello. He was probably introduced to these venues by his teacher Zimmerman. At the same time, Alkan Morhange arranged concerts featuring Charles-Valentin at public venues in Paris, in association with leading musicians including the sopranos Giuditta Pasta and Henriette Sontag, the cellist Auguste Franchomme and the violinist Lambert Massart, with whom Alkan gave concerts in a rare visit out of France to Brussels in 1827. In 1829, at the age of 15, Alkan was appointed joint professor of solfège – among his pupils in this class a few years later was his brother Napoléon. In this manner Alkan's musical career was launched well before the July Revolution of 1830, which initiated a period in which "keyboard virtuosity ... completely dominated professional music making" in the capital, attracting from all over Europe pianists who, as Heinrich Heine wrote, invaded "like a plague of locusts swarming to pick Paris clean". Alkan nonetheless continued his studies and in 1831 enrolled in the organ classes of François Benoist, from whom he may have learnt to appreciate the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, of whom Benoist was then one of the few French advocates.

Early fame (1831–1837)

Die junge George Sand
George Sand at 34, by Auguste Charpentier (1838)
Square d'Orléans
The Square d'Orléans
A-F Marmontel
Antoine Marmontel

Throughout the early years of the July Monarchy, Alkan continued to teach and play at public concerts and in eminent social circles. He became a friend of many who were active in the world of the arts in Paris, including Franz Liszt (who had been based there since 1827), George Sand, and Victor Hugo. It is not clear exactly when he first met Frédéric Chopin, who arrived in Paris in September 1831. In 1832 Alkan took the solo role in his first Concerto da camera for piano and strings at the Conservatoire. In the same year, aged 19, he was elected to the influential Société Académique des Enfants d'Apollon (Society of the Children of Apollo), whose members included Luigi Cherubini, Fromental Halévy, the conductor François Habeneck, and Liszt, who had been elected in 1824 at the age of twelve. Between 1833 and 1836 Alkan participated at many of the Society's concerts. Alkan twice competed unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome, in 1832 and again in 1834; the cantatas which he wrote for the competition, Hermann et Ketty and L'Entrée en loge, have remained unpublished and unperformed.

In 1834 Alkan began his friendship with the Spanish musician Santiago Masarnau, which was to result in an extended and often intimate correspondence which only came to light in 2009. Like virtually all of Alkan's correspondence, this exchange is now one-sided; all of his papers (including his manuscripts and his extensive library) were either destroyed by Alkan himself, as is clear from his will, or became lost after his death. Later in 1834 Alkan made a visit to England, where he gave recitals and where the second Concerto da camera was performed in Bath by its dedicatee Henry Ibbot Field; it was published in London together with some solo piano pieces. A letter to Masarnau and a notice in a French journal that Alkan played in London with Moscheles and Cramer, indicate that he returned to England in 1835. Later that year, Alkan, having found a place of retreat at Piscop outside Paris, completed his first truly original works for solo piano, the Twelve Caprices, published in 1837 as Opp. 12, 13, 15 and 16. Op. 16, the Trois scherzi de bravoure, is dedicated to Masarnau. In January 1836, Liszt recommended Alkan for the post of Professor at the Geneva Conservatoire, which Alkan declined, and in 1837 he wrote an enthusiastic review of Alkan's Op. 15 Caprices in the Revue et gazette musicale.

At the Square d'Orléans (1837–1848)

From 1837, Alkan lived in the Square d'Orléans in Paris, which was inhabited by numerous celebrities of the time including Marie Taglioni, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, and Chopin. Chopin and Alkan were personal friends and often discussed musical topics, including a work on musical theory that Chopin proposed to write. By 1838, at 25 years old, Alkan had reached a peak of his career. He frequently gave recitals, his more mature works had begun to be published, and he often appeared in concerts with Liszt and Chopin. On 23 April 1837 Alkan took part in Liszt's farewell concert in Paris, together with the 14-year-old César Franck and the virtuoso Johann Peter Pixis. On 3 March 1838, at a concert at the piano-maker Pape, Alkan played with Chopin, Zimmerman, and Chopin's pupil Adolphe Gutmann in a performance of Alkan's transcription, now lost, of two movements of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for two pianos, eight hands.

At this point, for a period which coincided with the birth and childhood of his natural son, Élie-Miriam Delaborde (1839–1913), Alkan withdrew into private study and composition for six years, returning to the concert platform only in 1844. Alkan neither asserted nor denied his paternity of Delaborde, which, however, his contemporaries seemed to assume. Marmontel wrote cryptically in a biography of Delaborde that "[his] birth is a page from a novel in the life of a great artist". Alkan gave early piano lessons to Delaborde, who was to follow his natural father as a keyboard virtuoso.

Alkan's return to the concert platform in 1844 was greeted with enthusiasm by critics, who noted the "admirable perfection" of his technique, and lauded him as "a model of science and inspiration", a "sensation" and an "explosion". They also commented on the attending celebrities including Liszt, Chopin, Sand and Dumas. In the same year he published his piano étude Le chemin de fer, which critics, following Ronald Smith, believe to be the first representation in music of a steam engine. Between 1844 and 1848 Alkan produced a series of virtuoso pieces, the 25 Préludes Op. 31 for piano or organ, and the sonata Op. 33 Les quatre âges. Following an Alkan recital in 1848, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was so impressed that he invited the pianist, whom he considered "a most remarkable artist", to prepare the piano arrangement of the overture to his forthcoming opera, Le prophète. Meyerbeer heard and approved Alkan's arrangement of the overture for four hands (which Alkan played with his brother Napoléon) in 1849; published in 1850, it is the only record of the overture, which was scrapped during rehearsals at the Opéra.

Retreat (1848–1872)

In 1848 Alkan was bitterly disappointed when the head of the Conservatoire, Daniel Auber, replaced the retiring Zimmerman with the mediocre Marmontel as head of the Conservatoire piano department, a position which Alkan had eagerly anticipated, and for which he had strongly lobbied with the support of Sand, Dumas, and many other leading figures. A disgusted Alkan described the appointment in a letter to Sand as "the most incredible, the most shameful nomination"; and Delacroix noted in his journal: "By his confrontation with Auber, [Alkan] has been very put out and will doubtless continue to be so." The upset arising from this incident may account for Alkan's reluctance to perform in public in the ensuing period. His withdrawal was also influenced by the death of Chopin; in 1850 he wrote to Masarnau "I have lost the strength to be of any economic or political use", and lamented "the death of poor Chopin, another blow which I felt deeply." Chopin, on his deathbed in 1849, had indicated his respect for Alkan by bequeathing him his unfinished work on a piano method, intending him to complete it, and after Chopin's death a number of his students transferred to Alkan. After giving two concerts in 1853, Alkan withdrew, in spite of his fame and technical accomplishment, into virtual seclusion for some twenty years.

Little is known of this period of Alkan's life, other than that apart from composing he was immersed in the study of the Bible and the Talmud. Throughout this period Alkan continued his correspondence with Ferdinand Hiller, whom he had probably met in Paris in the 1830s, and with Masarnau, from which some insights can be gained. It appears that Alkan completed a full translation into French, now lost, of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, from their original languages. In 1865, he wrote to Hiller: "Having translated a good deal of the Apocrypha, I'm now onto the second Gospel which I am translating from the Syriac ... In starting to translate the New Testament, I was suddenly struck by a singular idea – that you have to be Jewish to be able to do it."

Despite his seclusion from society, this period saw the composition and publication of many of Alkan's major piano works, including the Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39 (1857), the Sonatine, Op. 61 (1861), the 49 Esquisses, Op. 63 (1861), and the five collections of Chants (1857–1872), as well as the Sonate de concert for cello and piano, Op. 47 (1856). These did not pass unremarked; Hans von Bülow, for example, gave a laudatory review of the Op. 35 Études in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung in 1857, the year in which they were published in Berlin, commenting that "Alkan is unquestionably the most eminent representative of the modern piano school at Paris. The virtuoso's disinclination to travel, and his firm reputation as a teacher, explain why, at present, so little attention has been given to his work in Germany."

From the early 1850s Alkan began to turn his attention seriously to the pedal piano (pédalier). Alkan gave his first public performances on the pédalier to great critical acclaim in 1852. From 1859 onwards he began to publish pieces designated as "for organ or piano à pédalier".

Reappearance (1873–1888)

Alkan's Érard grand piano pédalier, now in the Musée de la Musique, Paris

It is not clear why, in 1873, Alkan decided to emerge from his self-imposed obscurity to give a series of six Petits Concerts at the Érard piano showrooms. It may have been associated with the developing career of Delaborde, who, returning to Paris in 1867, soon became a concert fixture, including in his recitals many works by his father, and who was at the end of 1872 given the appointment that had escaped Alkan himself, Professor at the Conservatoire. The success of the Petits Concerts led to them becoming an annual event (with occasional interruptions caused by Alkan's health) until 1880 or possibly beyond. The Petits Concerts featured music not only by Alkan but of his favourite composers from Bach onwards, played on both the piano and the pédalier, and occasionally with the participation of another instrumentalist or singer. He was assisted in these concerts by his siblings, and by other musicians including Delaborde, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Auguste Franchomme.

Those encountering Alkan at this phase included the young Vincent d'Indy, who recalled Alkan's "skinny, hooked fingers" playing Bach on an Érard pedal piano: "I listened, riveted to the spot by the expressive, crystal-clear playing." Alkan later played Beethoven's Op. 110 sonata, of which d'Indy said: "What happened to the great Beethovenian poem ... I couldn't begin to describe – above all in the Arioso and the Fugue, where the melody, penetrating the mystery of Death itself, climbs up to a blaze of light, affected me with an excess of enthusiasm such as I have never experienced since. This was not Liszt—perhaps less perfect, technically—but it had greater intimacy and was more humanly moving ..."

The biographer of Chopin, Frederick Niecks, sought Alkan for his recollections in 1880 but was sternly denied access by Alkan's concierge – "To my ... enquiry when he could be found at home, the reply was a ... decisive 'Never'." However, a few days later he found Alkan at Érard's, and Niecks writes of their meeting that "his reception of me was not merely polite but most friendly."


Alkan tomb
Tomb of Charles-Valentin Alkan, Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

According to his death certificate, Alkan died in Paris on 29 March 1888 at the age of 74. Alkan was buried on 1 April (Easter Sunday) in the Jewish section of Montmartre Cemetery, Paris, not far from the tomb of his contemporary Fromental Halévy; his sister Céleste was later buried in the same tomb.

For many years it was believed that Alkan met his death when a bookcase toppled over and fell on him as he reached for a volume of the Talmud from a high shelf. This tale, which was circulated by the pianist Isidor Philipp, is dismissed by Hugh Macdonald, who reports the discovery of a contemporary letter by one of his pupils explaining that Alkan had been found prostrate in his kitchen, under a porte-parapluie (a heavy coat/umbrella rack), after his concierge heard his moaning. He had possibly fainted, bringing it down on himself while grabbing out for support. He was reportedly carried to his bedroom and died later that evening. The story of the bookcase may have its roots in a legend told of Aryeh Leib ben Asher, rabbi of Metz, the town from which Alkan's family originated.

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