The bicentennial composer that France forgot

The bicentennial composer that France forgot


norman lebrecht

November 25, 2013

This year, as the world celebrated centenaries of Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten, Germany, Italy and England swelled with cultural pride and added a bit of swagger.

France, too, had a bicentennial composer but opted to keep quiet about him.

The Saturday, November 30, is the 200th anniversary of the boirth in Paris of Charles-Valentin Morhange Alkan, the foremost French piano virtuoso of the first half of the 19th century and a composer of exceedingly difficult works. Liszt and Chopin, it was said, lived in fear of his skills.

In mid-life, denied the post of head of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, Alkan withdrew from public performance and became a recluse.

His exclusion was, to a degree, founded on anti-semitic prejudice. We wonder what the excuse was for forgetting his bicentenary.




  • Liszt is certainly said to have been nervous to play in front of Alkan, although I’m unsure what hard evidence there may be in support of this. I’m not sure that Chopin shared such an attitude and, despite his not always well concealed anti-Semitism, he was good friends with Alkan in Paris in the 1840s and, when Chopin died in 1849, his then near-neighbour Alkan took on all of his students.

    Alkan was presumably less than nervours of playhing in front of Liszt and Chopin, for this is what he did in 1845 when premièring his 25 Préludes for piano befor an audience in which Liszt and Chopin sat next to one another.

    Why France has been so quiet about Alkan’s bicentenary (if that is indeed tha case) I have no idea; he is, after all, certainly far better known today than he was at the time of his centenary.

  • Alex Benjamin says:

    One of the problems with celebrating Alkan is that so few pianists are able to play his music, and of those who are, not all are interested in doing so.

    • That simply is not true. Some of Alkan’s works are indeed of colossal difficulty but there are plenty that are not. The Alkan discography is not so short of pianists these days; his three principal chamber works have been recorded more than once and two of a projected three CDs of his complete music for pédalier have been recorded on the organ of Blackburn Cathedral, UK

      • Alex Benjamin says:

        You’re right. I have to admit, a bit shamefully, being very interested in his production in the context of 19th-Century piano music, but just not being that attracted to the music itself.


    Good morning, Norman.

    Hopefully, your mention of the Alkan Bicentenniel will stimulate your readers to explore the extraordinary production of this brilliant 19th century creator. His piano etudes are wonderful as is his Concerto for Solo Piano. Any adventuresome pianist who wants to expand his/her technique should work through some of the etudes. They are both technically and musically satisfying.

    Happy Birthday, Charles-Valentin !!!

  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    In Lyon, we performed his Concerto de Chambre No. 1

    for Piano and Orchestra last month.

  • Warren Cohen says:

    There is actually a fair amount of activity around the bicentennial of his birth. Jack Gibbons is playing the entire op.39 at Merkin Hall in NYC on December 15th.

  • Ian says:

    I remember Ronald Smith coming to the Lyons Concert Hall at York University when I was a student there (so sometime between 1978 and 1982) and performing several extraordinary Alkan solo piano works.

  • David Conway says:

    Ther’s just been a 3-day Alkan jamboree in Paris (Biliotheque nationale, Conservatoire de Paris, Cite de la musique) and there has been a number of concerts throughout France this year – as well as around the UK and everywehere from Japan to Finland and Slovakia. And even I can play som,e of his shorter pieces (the Esquisses, the Preludes) so they can’t be that forbidding. What is rther disgraceful is that there has been absolutely nil on BBC Radio 3 about him this year – he deserved at least a composer of the week outing around now. But good news – he will the front page item on Wikipedia on November 30th, probably the greatest publicity he’s ever had.

  • Esfir Ross says:

    In 2014 2nd C.V.Alkan piano competition will take place in Athens, Greece. I attended the 1st and heard a lot of Alkan played well by young pianists. Happy birthday, C.V.Alkan!

  • Warren Cohen says:

    I should add that he is better known and more played in the UK and the US than in France, so it might be accurate to say that France has forgotten Alkan. I suspect that is because the two early Alkan champions were Lewenthal (US) and Smith (UK), and they inspired their countrymen to take up the cause, John Ogden also played the Concerto (badly, in my opinion, but he was a bigger name, so he helped get Alkan out in the public eye). The next generation of Alkan pianists are headed by Marc-Andre Hamelin, (Canadian, and more active in the US and the UK than on the Continent). None of the best known French pianists have championed his music. But we are way ahead of fifty years ago, when at the sesquicentennial of his birth Lewenthal “introduced” Alkan at Town Hall, recorded some Alkan, and did a radio show on WBAI and it created a sensation because at that time no one had heard his music. Tthe only other recording issued that year was by Jean Paul Bracey, a recording almost impossible to find. (I have never heard it), Both Bracey and Lewenthal recorded the Symphony, and these were the first ever recordings of a complete large scale work by the composer.

  • Thank you for noting the anniversary of Alkan, Norman. He is an under-recognized titan of the piano canon. My piano teacher Darwyn Aitken studied with David Saperton, Godowsky’s champion and son-in-law (and Gershwin’s brother-in-law.) Saperton held up Alkan to Darwyn as a member of the composer-pianist pantheon, along with Chopin, Liszt and, of course, Godowsky.

    Darwyn also studied with Oscar Peterson, and was quick to point out that Alkan was using “blue” (i.e. minor) 7ths in the early 1800s, long before they became a staple of jazz’s soundscape.

  • Marc-André Roberge says:

    The full programme of the three-day Alkan event in Paris can be found at

  • Playing the solo concerto on Friday in Florence … where there’s another big conference etc. Giving a talk about Alkan and 20thC British piano music: how he influenced the most original composers for the piano in the UK … Sorabji, Stevenson, White, Finnissy … 🙂

  • Dumont Marc says:

    As you can read, France don’t forget Alkan’s birthday. Even in France Musique, where I would broadcast my friday “Horizons Chimériques” with a whole Alkan program. All the best from Paris.

  • It’s indeed most gratifying to read so much evidence to the effect that Alkan is, adter all, getting a good deal more attention in his bicentenary year than some seem to have assumed to be the case.

    Warren Cohen, however, is perhaps right when noting that Alkan receives more performance in other countries than in his native France – not just this year but in more general terms; why that remains tghe case even today is neverthelss puzzling.

    Whilst the attention paid this year to Verdi, Wagner and Britten obviously exceeds that given to Alkan, I wonder if this might in part be due to the posthumous performance tradition problem that’s affected Alkan; the other three rarely had to wait long for their works to receive public performance (and in Wagner’s case Der Ring had to wait a long time only because it took him so long to compose!), whereas Alkan’s early departure from public music-making and the reclusiveness that accompanied it ensured – more forcefully, I think, than the exteme difficulty of just some of his works – his descent into unwarranted obscurity from which it became necessary to rescue him and, of course, this rescuing began to occur in earnest only during the past half-century or so, by which time music in general and piano music in particular had come a long way since the heydays of Chopin, Liszt and Alkan in the 1830s and 1840s.

    The solo concerto in Florence? Alkan meets Busoni again, methinks!

  • Martin says:

    Thanks for remembering me of Alkan. Liked many of his pieces I heared, but have never really read up about him – maybe because I never read his name in a schedule of concerts I cosidered attending.

  • Steve says:

    I’m intrigued by Alkan and yet there’s a missing dimension which i sometimes find troubling.

    Perhaps it’s to do with phrasing: rigid four-bar phrase rhythms without the subtle internal asymmetries and potential for rubato of Chopin – or even Liszt.

    Having said that, there are some wacky shorter pieces, and there’s undoubtedly a foreshadowing of later composers in his work.