Alkan (real name, Morhange), Charles-Valentin

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Alkan (real name, Morhange), Charles-Valentin

Alkan (real name, Morhange), Charles-Valentin, remarkable and eccentric French pianist and composer; b. Paris, Nov. 30, 1813; d. there, March 29, 1888. His father, Alkan Morhange (1780–1855), operated a music school in Paris; his brothers, Ernest (1816–76), Maxime (1818–91), Napoleon (1826–1906), and Gustave (1827–86), all became well-known musicians; all 5 adopted their father’s first name as their surname. Charles-Valentin entered the Paris Cons. in 1819 where he studied harmony with Dourlen and piano with Zimmerman, taking premiers prix in solfège (1820), piano (1824), harmony (1827), and organ (1834). He made his public debut as pianist and composer in Paris on April 2, 1826. By 1831 Alkan had established a reputation as a talented pianist in the salons of Paris, and had also begun to demonstrate his unique compositional skills. He played in a trio with A. Franchomme and J. Alard, for whom he wrote 3 chamber works. He visited London in 1833 and 1835, the only times he left Paris. In Paris, he developed friendships with leading musicians, artists, and literati, including Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Eugène Delacroix, and his neighbor, Chopin. On March 3, 1838, he appeared in a concert with Chopin; then, despite the favorable reception, inexplicably he did not appear again until 1844. Following several concerts in 1845, he again enigmatically interrupted his solo piano career for 28 years. Several laudatory articles by Schumann, Fétis, and Léon Kreutzer appeared during the interim concerning his compositions. One article by Kreutzer is significant as it also discusses a Sym. for Orch., which has subsequently disappeared. His piano work Le Chemin de fer, op.27 (1844), is the earliest work descriptive of the railroad. In 1848 Zimmerman retired as prof. of piano at the Paris Cons. and suggested Alkan as his successor. Despite intercessions on his part by Sand, the position was given to A. Marmontel; this event propelled Alkan even further into seclusion. After Chopin’s death, he moved away from his contingent of artistic companions and became a virtual recluse. In 1857 a deluge of compositions were publ., including the remarkable 12 études dans les tons mineurs, op.39; Études 4–7 constitute a sym. for solo piano, Études 8–10 a concerto for solo piano. In 1859 one of his rare non-pianistic works, the grotesque Marche funèbre sulla morte d’un papagallo for Voices, 3 Oboes, and Bassoon, appeared. About this time he also became interested in the pédalier, a pedal board that attaches to a piano, on which he played organ works of Bach and for which he wrote many compositions, including the unique Bombardo-carillon for 4 feet alone. In 1873 he returned to the concert stage with a series of 6 recitals at the Salle Érard in Paris. This series was repeated yearly until 1882, 1876 excepted. He also appeared there on Monday and Thursday for 1 hour in a private studio, where he entertained anyone who happened to be present. The remainder of his activities remain shrouded in mystery.

Evidence is strong that his student Elie Delaborde was his natural son, although there is no formal documentation to substantiate the claim. Other students included I. Cervantes, F. Stockhausen Jr., and J. Wieniawski. During his lifetime, Alkan was an enigma; his pianistic skills were highly praised, even compared to those of Chopin and Liszt, and yet his aberrant behavior and misanthropy caused his name not to remain in the foreground. Judging from the scores of his difficult works, his skills must have been formidable. Since his death several pianists, notably Busoni, Petri, Lewenthal, Smith, and Hamelin have kept his works alive. Creating an accurate catalog of his voluminous works would be extremely difficult, since several works were publ. with as many as three different opus numbers in eds. by different publishers; some works were printed using different names, some opus numbers are missing (or possibly were never assigned), and some works were never publ.


KEYBOARD: Piano Solo: Alleleuia, op.25: 3 Andantes romantiques, op.l3; Capriccio alla soldatesca, op.50a; Caprice, Quasi-caccia, op.53; 30 Chants, 5 Recueils, opp.37, 38, 65, 67, and 70; Danse ibérienne, Zorcico; Esquisse, Le tambour bat aux champs, op.50b; 48 Esquisses, motifs divises en 4 suites, op.63; Étude: Bourée d’Auvergne, op.29; Étude, Le chemin de fer, op.27; Étude de concert, Le preux, op.17; 12 Études dans les tons majeures, op.35; 12 Études dans les tons mineures, op.39; Fantaisie, Désir (1844); Fantasticheria (c. 1850); Fantasticheria; Chapeau bas (c. 1872); 2 Fughe da camena, Jean qui pleure et Jean quit rit (c. 1840); Gigue et air de ballet dans le style ancien, op.24; Grande sonata, Les 4 âges, op.33; 3 Grandes études, op.76; Impromptu in F major (c. 1845); Impromptus, 2 Receuils, op.32 (part publ. earlier as op.26); 3 Improvisations dans le style brilliant, op.12; Introduction et impromptu, Une fusée, op.55; Marche funèbre, op.26a; Marche triomphale, op.27a; 3 Marches da cavalleria, op.37; 3 Menuets, op.51; Minuetto alla tedesca, op.46; 3 Morceaux dans le genre pathétique, op.15; 6 Morceaux caractéristiques, op.8 (republ. as op.16 and as part of op.74); 12 Morceaux caractéristiques, Les Mois, op.74 (includes op.16); Nocturne No. 1, op.22; Nocturnes Nos. 2 and 3, op.57; Nocturne No. 4, Le grillon, op.60b; Paraphrase, Super flumina Babylonis, op.52; Paraphrase, Salut, cendre du pauvre!, op.45; Petite caprice en forme de Zorcico, Réconciliation, op.42; Petit conte (1859); 3 Petites fantaisies, op.41; 2 Petites pièces, op.60; 3 Pièces poétiques, op.18; 25 Préludes, op.31 (also for Organ); Rondo brillant, op.4 (with string quartet ad libitum); Rondo chromatique, op.12; Rondo sur un thème de “II Barbiere di Siviglia” de Rossini, op.5; Rondoletto: II était un p’tit homme, op.3; Saltarelle in E minor, op.23; Scherzo focoso, op.34; 3 Scherzi, op.16; Sonatine in A minor, op.61; Toccatina in C minor, op.75; 3 Variations, op.16; Variations, Les omnibus, op.2; Variations sur le thème de “l’Orage’ de Steibelt, op.l; several other variations; many transcriptions. Piano 4-hands: Finale, op.17; 3 Marches, op.40; Variations-fantasie sur les motifs de “Don Juan”, after Mozart, op.26. keyboard pédalier or piano 3–hands: Benedictus, op.54; Bombardo-carillon (4 feet only; c. 1872); 12 Études (pedals only; c. 1871); 12 Fugues (n.d.); 11 Grandes préludes et une transcription du “Messie” de Handel, op.66; 13 Prières, op.64. Organ: Impromptu sur le choral de Luther, “Un fort rampart est notre Dieu”, op. 69; Petits préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant (1859); 11 Pièces dans le style religieux et une transcriptions du “Messie” de Handel, op.72; 7 Prières: Pro organo (1850). ORCH.: Concerto da Camera in A minor for Piano and Orch., No. 1, op.10; Concerto da Camera in C–sharp minor for Piano and Strings, No. 2. CHAMBER: Grande duo concertant in F-sharp minor for Violin and Piano, op.21; Piano Trio in G minor, op.30; Sonate de concert in E minor for Cello or Viola and Piano, op.47. WIND BAND: Pds redouble. VOCAL: Hermann et Ketty, cantata (1832); L’entrée en loge, cantata (1834); Romance du phare d’Eddystone (1845; not extant); Etz chajim hi (1847); Halelouyoh (1857); Marchia funèbre sulla morte d’un papagallo (1859); Stances de Millevoye (1859).


J. Bloch, C-V. A. (Indianapolis, 1941); R. Lewenthal, The Piano Music of A. (N.Y., 1964); D. Henning, C.–V. A. (diss., Univ. of Oxford, 1975); R. Smith, A., Vol. I: The Enigma (London, 1976) and A., Voi. II: The Music (N.Y., 1987); B. Schilling, Virtuose Klaviermusik des 19. Jahrhunderts am Beispiel von C.V. A., 1813–1888 (Regensburg, 1986); B. François-Sappey, ed., C.V. A. (Paris, 1991).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire