Charles-Valentin Alkan (November 30, 1813?March 29, 1888) was a French composer and one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his day. His compositions for solo piano include some of the most fiendishly difficult ever written, and performers who can master them are few and far between. His attachment to his Jewish origins is displayed both in his life and his work. Like Chopin, Alkan wrote almost exclusively for the keyboard, although in Alkan's case this included the organ and the pédalier (a piano with a pedal board), of which he was a noted exponent. Some of his music requires a dazzling virtuosity, examples of his compositions calling for velocity, enormous leaps at speed, long stretches of fast repeated notes, and the maintenance of widely-spaced contrapuntal lines. Notable compositions include the Grande Sonate Les Quatre Ages (opus 33), depicting the Four Ages of Man, and the two sets of etudes in all the major and minor keys (opus 35 in the major and opus 39 in the minor). These surpass even the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in scale and difficulty. The opus 39 collection contains the Symphony for Solo Piano (numbers four, five, six and seven), and the Concerto for Solo Piano (numbers eight, nine and ten). The concerto alone takes nearly an hour to play, and presents a great challenge to the performer. Number twelve of Op. 39 is a set of variations Le festin d'Esope ('Aesop's Feast'). He also composed other programmatic pieces, such as Le chemin de fer (1844) which may be the earliest composition giving a musical picture of a railroad. His chamber music compositions include a violin sonata, a cello sonata, and a piano trio. One of his most bizarre pieces is the Marche funebre sulla morte d'un papagallo (Funeral march for a parrot), for three oboes, bassoon and voices.
Musically, many of his ideas were unconventional, even innovative. Some of his multi-movement compositions show 'progressive tonality' which would have been familiar to the later Danish composer, Carl Nielsen (for example, Alkan's first chamber concerto begins in A minor and ends in E major). He was rigorous in avoiding enharmonic spelling, occasionally modulating to keys containing double-sharps or double-flats, so pianists are occasionally required to come to terms with distant keys such as E# major and the occasional triple-sharp.
Alkan seems to have had few followers, although his admirers included Ferruccio Busoni and Anton Rubinstein. The latter dedicated a concerto to him. Debussy and Ravel both studied his music under teachers who knew Alkan personally and noted their debt to his examples. The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji promoted Alkan's music in his reviews and criticism, and composed a work with a movement entitled Quasi Alkan. Alkan's organ compositions were known to César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns and others and their influence can be traced in the French organ school up to the present day.
For many years after his death, Alkan's work was almost completely forgotten. There has been a steady revival of interest in his compositions over the course of the twentieth century. Works by Alkan have been recorded by Egon Petri, John Ogdon, Raymond Lewenthal, Ronald Smith, Jack Gibbons, Mark Latimer, Stephanie McCallum, Marc-André Hamelin, Trevor Parks and Dmitry Feofanov, among others.
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