Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
Charles-Valentin Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange to a Jewish family in Paris, where his father lived as a music teacher. Charles-Valentin and his brothers, who were also musicians, used their father's first name, Alkan, as their last. Alkan spent his life in and around Paris. His only known excursions were a concert tour in England in 1833-1834, and a brief visit to Metz on family matters in the 1840s.
Alkan was a child prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, where he studied both piano and organ. His teachers included Joseph Zimmermann, who also taught Georges Bizet, César Franck, Charles Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas. At the age of seven, he won a first prize for solfège, and at the age of nine, Luigi Cherubini described his technique and ability as extraordinary. His opus 1 dates from 1828, when he was 14 years old.
In his twenties, he played concerts in elegant social circles and taught the piano. His friends included Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. By the age of twenty-four, he had built a reputation as one of the great virtuoso pianists of his day, rivalling other touring virtuoso composer-pianists of the day such as Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg, and Friedrich Kalkbrenner. Liszt once stated that Alkan had the most perfect technique he had ever seen, and it was said that Alkan was the only pianist that Liszt did not dare 'take on' for a technical competition.
Because of various personal problems, Alkan withdrew into private study and composition for the remainder of his life, with only occasional forays back into the limelight. In spite of his early fame and technical accomplishment, he spent much of his life after 1850 in obscurity, performing in public only occasionally. In his last decade he emerged to give a series of 'Petits Concerts' at the Erard piano showrooms, which featured music not only by himself but of his favourite composers from Bach onwards. He was occasionally assisted in these concerts by his siblings. Those attending included Vincent d'Indy.
There are periods of Alkan's life about which little is known, other than that he was immersed in the study of the Bible and the Talmud. It appears from his correspondence with Ferdinand Hiller that Alkan completed a full translation into French of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, from their original languages. This has been completely lost, as have many of Alkan's compositions. Amongst the missing works are some string sextets and a full-scale orchestral symphony, quite different from the Symphony for piano solo in op. 39, which was described in an article in 1846 by Léon Kreutzer, to whom Alkan had shown the score.
The pianist Elie-Miriam Delaborde (18391913) is generally believed to be Alkan's illegitimate son. He was taught by Alkan in his youth and performed and edited many of Alkan's works. Like his father he was a notable pédalier player.
After Chopin died, Alkan took over most of his piano pupils. Alkan himself died in a way that is as strange as his life and music - he was crushed by his huge bookcase, which fell over when he tried to take the Talmud from the top shelf.
Only some decennia ago, Alkan's music was only known to a handful of connaisseurs, and few pianists would touch it on account of its staggering difficulties (Alkan regularly outdoes both Liszt and Chopin in sheer physical demands). It is thanks to the pioneering work of pianists like Ronald Smith, Raymond Lewenthal, and, more recently, Jack Gibbons, Marc-André Hamelin and Stephanie McCallum, that Alkan is finally being played by pianists, and is recognized as one of the most important and original piano composers of all time.