Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)—a name now synonymous with ‘excessively difficult piano music’—a composer-pianist whose life was shrouded in mystery; tales ranging from his twenty year spell of seclusion, to his ill-fated demise through the medium of a falling bookcase. Alkan is now becoming recognised as an innovative composer and notable figure in the Parisian music scene of the 19th century.
Born in 1813, to a family with a long Ashkenazi Jew heritage; Alkan’s skills as a pianist were soon recognised and he was believed to be a piano prodigy by aged 6. Using his tuition gained at the Conservatoire de Paris, Alkan's first composition saw light in the year 1828, a set of variations for the piano. Alkan began his career as a pianist and gained early fame through the Parisian Salons and other distinguished social circles, where he would soon meet Franz Liszt—perhaps the only rival to Alkan’s skill at the piano.
Alkan's mature compositional style has often been compared to 'Berlioz at the piano', yet with a Lisztian virtuosic character. However, as much as Alkan wrote in a literary fashion close to Berlioz, and flamboyance of Liszt; he did not push musical boundaries in the same way. Seemingly more content utilising traditional forms, Alkan produced his finest works using mostly ternary or sonata form structures. It is interesting to note Alkan's meticulous orthography, often leading to keys such as E-sharp major, forcing the pianist to puzzle over the score even more than normal.
Alkan’s first notable composition was perhaps the Grande sonate ‘Les quatre âges’, Op. 33, composed in 1848.
Marc-André Hamelin discusses and plays Alkan Grande sonate ‘Les quatre âges’, Op. 33—20 Ans, 30 Ans: Quasi Faust
In this unusual sonata, 'The four ages' each movement is marked with a subtitle which depicts a man in four stages of life: 20 ans, 30 ans: Quasi Faust, 40 ans: Un heureux ménage, 50 ans: Prométhée enchaîné. (20 years, 30 years: Faustian, 40 years: A Happy Household, 50 years: Prometheus bound)
20 ans— depicts a spirited young man, étude like and optimistic.
30 ans: Quasi Faust—marked to be played 'Sataniquement' (satanically), the largest movement of the sonata, notably featuring a short fugue in eight voices.
40 ans: Un hereaux ménage—a aging man in a relaxed state.
50 ans: Prométhée enchaîné—a very old man, mortally looking towards the grave; on a path bound to meet Prometheus.
A complete performance of Alkan Grande sonate ‘Les quatre âges’, Op. 33, by Vincenzo Maltempo
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