Charles Valentin Alkan

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Charles-Valentin Alkan: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Charles Valentin Alkan (born November 30, 1813 in Paris ; † March 29, 1888 there ; also Charles Valentin Alkan aîné , actually Charles Valentin Morhange ) was a French composer and piano virtuoso .

His extensive work, which focuses on the piano, is rooted in the time of the romantically understood virtuosity of Niccolò Paganini , Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt , whose center was Paris in the 1830s.


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Charles Valentin Morhange was the son of the Lorraine Jewish schoolmaster and music teacher Alkan Morhange, whose first name he and his siblings took as their last name. Several of Charles Valentin Alkan's brothers have also emerged as musicians, including the pianist, composer and professor at the Paris Conservatory Napoléon Alkan (1826–1906). An illegitimate son of Alkan was Élie Miriam Delaborde (1839-1913), an outstanding pianist of his time.

At the age of six, Charles Valentin Alkan was accepted to study piano and organ at the Paris Conservatory . As the most talented student of his most important teacher and mentor Pierre Joseph Guillaume Zimmermann , he made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of twelve; Victor Dourlen taught him in the subjects of harmony and counterpoint .

As early as 1829 he held the position of répétiteur de solfège at the Conservatoire and taught there from 1831 to 1836 as professeur honoraire for solfège , but to his great disappointment did not receive the corresponding professorship, which became free in 1836.

As a young virtuoso, Alkan, along with his rivals Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg, is one of the leading pianists who fully exploited the possibilities of modern pianos and, through changes in playing technique, gained new possibilities of expression and implemented them artistically. Between 1839 and 1843 he withdrew completely from the public for unknown reasons. A symphony for large orchestra announced in 1844 and discussed in the press was neither performed nor published. Also between 1846 and 1848 Alkan hardly appeared in public and devoted his time mainly to composing and, as later, to studying the Torah and the Talmud . An Opéra comique was not published, but many of his piano works appeared in print.

It was taken for granted that Alkan would succeed Zimmermann as Professeur de Piano in his office. The fact that it did not come to this because of a political intrigue (successor was the less gifted Antoine Marmontel ) may have been one of the reasons why Alkan bitterly withdrew from the public for several years in 1848. The death of his friend Frédéric Chopin in 1849 also increased his fear of the public.

Since the mid-1840s he had given musical advice to the Jewish community in Paris and in 1851 temporarily took over the position of organist at the Jewish temple in Paris. He contributed little to religious Jewish music, although he revealed to his friend Ferdinand Hiller that the entire Torah should be set to music in a "second life". The organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy gave him more inspiration . However, he rarely composed exclusively for the organ, but mainly for the pedal piano , as the playing instructions in these works show.

Only in later years did he turn to smaller groups of the public. Between 1873 and 1880 he aimed for cycles of six petits concerts de musique classique . Between 1873 and 1875 there were six concerts each. They were omitted in 1876 and 1879, four concerts in 1878 and three in 1880. In the programs, Alkan mostly played alone in a colorful mixture works of the German, Italian and French Baroque, the period of the Viennese Classic (including the late Beethoven sonatas) and the Romantic period up to his contemporaries of about the same age as Chopin and F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy as well as from and to also own works. After that, Alkan withdrew almost entirely. Even after 1882 he did not carry on the long correspondence with Ferdinand Hiller.

Alkan died in almost complete oblivion in 1888 and found his final resting place on the Cimetière de Montmartre (Division 3). Only rumors are known about the circumstances of his death; in the formation of musical legends, for example, he was killed by a falling bookshelf. An obituary in the magazine Le Ménestrel macabre stated that the news of his death made it known that he still existed.


Alkan's works, mostly piano compositions, remained relatively unknown during his lifetime. Robert Schumann's 1837 negative review of the Trois morceaux, op. 15, prevented an unprejudiced reception in the German-speaking world, although a little later Schumann had acknowledged Alkan as an "ultra of the French romantics" . Alkan's works have only experienced a renaissance in the last few years.

Alkan is not inferior to his more famous contemporaries, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, in compositional mastery and the expression of an individual piano language. Some of Liszt's technical and compositional ideas were anticipated by Alkan. Many of his works are of enormous difficulty and only reserved for the virtuoso.

With his first major work, the Trois Grandes Études, op. 76 (1838), Alkan crossed the line from a technical masterpiece to an étude as an art form. The first etude is written for the left hand alone, the second for the right hand alone, and the third “reunited” for both hands. The latter is a clear anticipation of the Unison final movement from Chopin's B flat minor Sonata .

Another innovation is the programmatic Grande Sonate ('Quatres-ages'), op. 33 (1844), with which Alkan's mature style is manifested. Each of the four sentences stands for an age. The second movement deals with the third decade of a person's life in the form of a Faust scene. Even before Liszt's Sonata in B minor (1853), the thematic realization of the characters by means of an Idée fixe can be found here , which also amounts to opening up symphonic ideas for the piano. Both are later associated with Liszt rather than alkane.

The metaphysical dimension of virtuosity , which at the time was not understood as derogatory , is by no means only revealed in Liszt's Études d'exécution transcendante , but hardly more clearly and exemplarily than in Alkan's Douze Etudes dans les tons mineurs, op.39 (12 etudes in all minor keys) from 1857. This cycle is a unique metacycle of twelve concert studies, some of which are grouped internally. Three of the etudes are combined to form a concert pour piano , the first movement of which alone has a playing time of 30 minutes, and four others form a symphony pour piano . The last Etude ( Le Festin d'Aesope , also Le Festin d'Ésope ) is an independent cycle of variations , the individual variations of which - except for the last - remain close to the eight-bar theme and are similarly systematic as the Paganini Variations by Franz Liszt ( Grandes Etudes de Paganini No. 6, 1839/1851) and Johannes Brahms (op. 35, 1866) deal with typical pianistic problems.

But his work also includes smaller pieces. 49 of these are summarized in the Esquisses op. 63 cycle published in 1861 . Each of the 24 major and minor keys is represented by two pieces. The Esquisses are reminiscent of Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28 , with their sometimes succinct brevity and their alternation between seemingly naive simplicity and refined virtuosity, and go beyond what was customary at the time with harmonic daring.

The chamber music works (a piano trio, the Sonata de concert for piano and violoncello and the Grand Duo concertant for piano and violin) and the two preserved, remarkably concise Concerti da Camera of only a few minutes should not go unmentioned .

The enormous technical difficulties and the sometimes enormous scope of his works prevented them from spreading right from the start. Nevertheless, there is a line of pianistic tradition that has never completely let his works be forgotten: after Anton Rubinstein and Ferruccio Busoni and his students Egon Petri and John Ogdon , Ronald Smith and Raymond Lewenthal in particular have taken on his works in recent decades . Today Marc-André Hamelin , Vincenzo Maltempo , Jack Gibbons and Stéphanie Elbaz are the best-known alkane interpreters among the great pianists. Thanks to Hamelin's commitment in cooperation with the Alkan societies in England and France, a growing number of pianists are once again adding Alkan to their repertoire.

Works for piano solo

  • 1826, Variations sur un thème de Steibelt
  • 1829, Les omnibus, variations
  • 1830 Les mois
  • 1830, Il était un p'tit homme, rondoletto
  • 1833, Rondeau chromatique
  • 1834, Variations on La tremenda ultrice spada (Bellini)
  • 1834, Variations on Ah segnata è mia morte (Donizetti)
  • 1834, Variations quasi fantasie sur une barcarolle napolitaine
  • 1837, Trois études de bravoure (scherzi)
  • 1837, souvenirs: Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique , op.15
    • Aime-moi
    • Le vent
    • Morte
  • 1837, Trois Andantes romantiques
  • 1837, Trois improvisations (dans le style brillant)
  • 1838, Six morceaux caractéristiques
  • 1838–1840, Trois grandes études , op. 76
    • Fantaisie (for the left hand), A flat major
    • Introduction, variations et finale (for the right hand), D major
    • Mouvément semblable et perpetuel (united for both hands), C minor
  • 1844, Nocturne
  • 1844, Salterelle
  • 1844, Gigue et air de ballet dans le style ancien
  • 1844, Alleluia , op.25
  • 1844–1846, Marche funèbre
  • 1844, Marche triomphale
  • 1844, Le chemin de fer, étude
  • 1844, Les preux, étude de concert , op.17
  • 1846, 25 Preludes, piano ou orgue , op.31
  • 1846, Bourrée d'Auvergne, étude
  • 1847, Douze Études dans tous les tons majeurs , op.35
  • 1847, Grande sonate ('Les quatre Âges de la vie') , op.33
  • 1847, Scherzo focoso
  • 1849, Deuxième recueil d'impromptus
  • 1856, Salut, cendre du pauvre! , op.45
  • 1857, Trois Marches quasi cavalleria
  • 1857, Trois petites fantaisies , op.41
  • 1857, reconciliation, petit caprice
  • 1857, Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs , op.39
    • Comme le vent
    • En rythme molossique
    • Scherzo diabolico
    • Symphony pour piano seul (No. 4-7)
    • Concerto pour piano seul (No. 8-10)
    • Overture
    • Le festin d'Ésope
  • 1857, Trois Marches pour piano en duo
  • 1857, Deuxième recueil de chants
  • 1859, Capriccio alla soltadesca
  • 1859, Le tambour bat aux champs, esquisse
  • 1859, Super flumina Babylonis (Paraphrase du psaume 137) , op.52
  • 1859, quasi-caccia, caprice
  • 1859, Bénédictus - pour pédalier ou piano trois mains
  • 1859, Une fusée, introduction et impromptu
  • 1859, Deuxième nocturne
  • 1859, Troisième nocturne
  • 1860, Le grillon, quatrième nocturne
  • 1860, Ma chère liberté et ma chère servitude: Deux petites pièces
  • 1861, Esquisses (motifs) , op.63
  • 1861, Sonatina , op.61
  • 1862 (ca), Deux petites pièces , op.60
    • I. Machère liberté
    • II. Ma chère servitude
  • 1867, 11 pieces dans le style religieux et une transcription du Messie d'Händel, orgue, harmonium, piano
  • 1869, Finale (saltarelle du concerto pour violoncelle arrangée pour piano)
  • 1869, Impromptu sur le choral de Luther "Un fort rampart est notre Dieu" (for pedal pianos !)
  • 1869, 3 prières pour orgue, pédalier, piano trois mains
  • 1869, Zorcico: Danse Ibérienne à cinq temps
  • 1869, Troisième recueil de chants
  • 1872, Toccatina , op.75
  • 1872, Quatrième recueil de chants
  • 1879, Cinquième recueil de chant
  • 1883, Rondo d'après Rossini (Le Barbier de Séville)

Chamber music works

  • 1833, Rondo brillant pour piano et quatuor de cordes
  • before 1840, Trio pour piano, violon et basse , G minor, op. 30
  • 1840, Grand duo concertant pour piano et violon , F sharp minor, op.21
  • 1856, Sonate de concert pour piano et violoncelle , E major, op.47

Works for piano and orchestra

  • 1832, Concerto de chambre no 1 , A minor, op.10, 1
  • 1832, Concerto de chambre no 2 , C sharp minor, op.10, 2


  • 1859, L. v. Beethoven, 3rd Piano Concerto in C minor, 1st movement: Arrangement for piano solo with new cadenza

Sources, comments, individual references

  1. Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813–1888) , Regensburg 1986, p. 105
  2. Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813–1888) , Regensburg 1986, pp. 103–120
  3. Franz Liszt on June 5, 1884 in a lesson during the review of Alkan's Le Festin d'Ésope from op. 39: “A composer who is known far too little and has very good things.” In: Franz Liszt's piano lessons from 1884 –1886 represented in August Göllerich's diary entries. Edited by Wilhelm Jerger, Regensburg 1975
  4. Robert Schumann: Ch. V. Alkan, 3 large studies. Plant 15 . In: Martin Kreisig (Hrsg.): Collected writings on music and musicians by Robert Schumann . 5th edition Leipzig 1914, 1st volume, p. 358
  5. Robert Schumann: Valentin Alkan, 6 characteristic pieces . In: Martin Kreisig (Hrsg.): Collected writings on music and musicians by Robert Schumann . 5th edition Leipzig 1914, 1st volume, p. 405
  6. a b Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) . Regensburg, 1986, pp. 351ff
  7. Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) . Regensburg, 1986, pp. 274ff
  8. Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) . Regensburg, 1986, p. 262ff
  9. to German: Sketches , Alkan also used the term motifs for it
  10. No. 4 Les Cloches
  11. No. 8 is entitled "Pseudo-Naïvité"
  12. No. 25 La Poursuite
  13. No. 41 Les Enharmoniques
  14. ^ William Alexander Eddie: Charles Valentin Alkan. His Life and His Music. Aldershot et altera 2007, pp. 121fff


  • Jean-Yves Bras and François Luguenot: Catalog de l'oeuvre d'Alkan. Paris 1989.
  • William Alexander Eddie: Charles Valentin Alkan. His Life and His Music. Aldershot 2007, ISBN 978-1-84014-260-0 .
  • Brigitte François-Sappey (ed.): Charles Valentin Alkan. Collection of articles. Paris 1991.
  • Brigitte François-Sappey, François Luguenot: Charles-Valentin Alkan. Paris 2013.
  • Raymond Lewenthal: The Piano Music of Alkan. New York 1964.
  • Wolfgang Rathert : Virtuosity in the work of Charles Valentin Alkan. With a few notes on the Études op. 39. In: H. v. Loesch, U. Mahlert, P. Rummenhöller (Ed.): Musical virtuosity. Mainz 2004, pp. 152–166 ( Sound and Concept. Perspectives on Musical Theory and Practice. Volume 1).
  • Wolfgang Rathert: A lance for alkane. In: Music & Aesthetics. 6, No. 22, 2002, pp. 89-95.
  • Britta Schilling: Virtuoso piano music of the 19th century using the example of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813–1888). Regensburg 1986, ISBN 3-7649-2317-2 .
  • Britta Schilling-Wang, François Luguenot:  Alkan, Charles Valentin. In: Ludwig Finscher (Hrsg.): The music in past and present . Second edition, personal section, volume 1 (Aagard - Baez). Bärenreiter / Metzler, Kassel et al. 1999, ISBN 3-7618-1111-X , Sp. 480–488 ( online edition , subscription required for full access)
  • Ronald Smith: Alkan: the Man / the Music. London 2000, ISBN 1-871082-73-0 .
  • Michael Struck: Surrogate and hubris - areas of activity of the piano in the context of traditional genres: Johannes Brahms' four-hand arrangements of his own works and Charles Valentin Alkan's Douze études op. 39. In: Arnfried Edler , Sabine Meine, (Ed.): Music, science and theirs Mediation. Report on the International Musicological Conference of the Hanover University of Music and Theater 26. – 29. September 2001 (= publications of the Hanover University of Music and Drama. Volume 12). Augsburg 2002, pp. 119-135.
  • Ulrich Tadday (Ed.): Charles Valentin Alkan . Munich 2017 (= Music Concepts Vol. 178), ISBN 978-3-86916-600-1 . [Anthology with contributions by Arnfried Edler, Christoph Flamm, Hartmut Lück, Jascha Nemtsov , Wolfgang Rathert and Jacqueline Waeber, including bibliography and discography]

Web links

Commons : Charles Valentin Alkan  - Collection of images, videos and audio files