Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a French Jewish pianist and composer who spent his entire life in Paris. He soon became famous for his pianistic virtuosity and was considered by his contemporaries as one of the leading pianists of his generation. However, for reasons that are unknown to us, he decided to leave behind his performance career and seclude himself for almost 25 years (between 1848 and 1872) whilst continuing his work as a composer.
Alkan´s Symphony for Solo Piano was published in 1857 as part of his 12 etudes in all minor keys (“Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs”). Although being embedded in a cycle of etudes, the Symphony is clearly indicated and therefore usually played as a self-contained work with four movements:
- Allegro (Etude in C minor)
- Marche Funèbre (Etude in F minor)
- Menuet (Etude in B-flat minor)
- Finale (Etude in E-flat minor)
As one can see, the movements are written in different keys, thus forming a progression of falling fifths (C – F – B-flat –E-flat). The absence of a tonal centre is rather unusual for a multi-movement work of that period such as a Sonata or a Symphony and due to the fact that Alkan´s sets of 12 major and 12 minor etudes op. 35 and 39, similarly to Chopin´s cycles of Etudes and Preludes, follow the concept of Bach´s Well-Tempered Piano featuring all 24 minor and major keys within the circle of fifths.
As the musical analysis will show, Bach´s music has been an important influence not only in terms of the key concept, but also in terms of the compositional techniques used in this composition. At the same time, Alkan pays tribute to Beethoven whose Symphonies and (often symphonically conceptualized) piano sonatas have undoubtedly been a great source of inspiration in terms of the form and “orchestration” of the piano.
Compared to his other works, the Symphony is one of Alkan´s most classical, almost classicist compositions. Being roughly 30 minutes long, it is less eccentric than his Grande Sonate “Les quatre âges” op. 33 and less exuberant than his almost hour-long “Concerto pour Piano Seul” (op.39 no. 8-10). This being said, the Symphony can be considered as one of his most accomplished works, both regarding its formal balance and genuineness. Already the idea to write a Symphony for a single instrument is highly original. But it is above all Alkan´s mastery in creating suspense and imitating different orchestral instruments and their individual sounds on the piano that makes this work so vibrant and unique.
In the beginning of the first movement, the composer introduces the main theme in the bass register of the piano, supposably having the lower string section of the orchestra in mind. The low register, but also the use of syncopations as well as the repetition of a “sighing” motive within the theme contribute to a very dark and desperate character that prevails throughout the movement:
The opening movement is structured according to the traditional Sonata form, beginning with an exposition, followed by the development section, the recapitulation and a coda. After the presentation of the main theme follows a transitional theme that is characterized by chromaticism and lyrical character:
After the transition, the composer introduces the second theme which contrasts with the main theme both in terms of the tonality (being written in the relative major key) and in its character which is rather light and cheerful. Another difference between the main theme and the second theme is the use of intervals: Whereas the main theme only consists of diatonic steps within the c minor scale, the second theme begins with an octave leap and then continues with melismatic, almost arabesque figures built upon a succession of semitones:
In the development section, the composer focusses on the main theme, whereas the second theme does not reappear. The composer fragmentizes the main theme into its central melodic and rhythmical elements and confronts them with each other, often in a contrapuntal manner:
The recapitulation begins rather conventionally. The main theme is reintroduced in the tonic key, and the transitional theme appears in C major, thus converging towards the tonality of the main subject. The second theme, however, does not reappear again. Instead, there seems to be a second development-like section that leads to the coda. It is only in this coda that the second theme has its (belated) entry, which is even more triumphant and jubilating than in its first appearance:
This passage reflects at the same one of the typical traits in Alkan´s piano music: The use of fullhanded chords creating a very dense, tutti-like sound. The chord progressions are often extremely demanding and difficult to handle in a fast tempo since the composer does not content himself with four voices per hand (which would already be difficult enough), but, requires the use of all five fingers, as one can see in the last 2 bars of the aforementioned example. In spite of all technical difficulties, his piano music is never unplayable. It requires a lot of stamina, a good sense for voicing and balance and – of course – a solid technique, but it never goes beyond the pianistically feasible.
As the title already implies, the second movement of the Symphony has characteristic traits of a funeral march, e.g. the frequent use of dotted rhythms, the walking pace (“Andantino”) and the serious character. The large-scale form is A-B-A, with minor modifications of the A part in the Da Capo section. The way Alkan creates an orchestral sound by mixing the melodic line in the tenor voice with a pizzicato-like accompaniment is very similar to the compositional technique of Beethoven in certain piano sonatas, e.g. the slow movement of op. 2 No. 2:
The B section contrasts with the rest of the piece. Written in major and reminding of a 6-part choral, it is much more gentle in character and less rigorous than the A section.
The descending line of the upper voices is closely linked to a melodic fragment in the development section of the first movement:
This example illustrates that the four movements, although not being related to each other in terms of a common key, are deeply connected on the motivic level. In the Da Capo part, the character of the piece becomes very severe and gloomy again. In contrast to the B section in which the composer makes use of rather bright and light colors, the music in the A section is situated in the lower registers. By the end of the movement, the main theme is interrupted by a somber trill which reminds of a timpani roll, leading to a repetition of the lowest note (b) and thus reducing the melody to its essential rhythmical element:
This reflects the imaginative power of the composer and his ability to treat the piano not only as a melodic and harmonic, but also as a percussive instrument.
The Menuet could also have been entitled as “Scherzo” in the Beethovenian sense. Alkan follows the typical A-B-A form of the Menuet/ Scherzo. In the beginning of the A section the phrases are built in a highly asymmetrical way. By inserting little accents and abrupt dynamic changes, the composer deliberately confuses the listener and thus creates humorous effects. It is only after four bars that one can clearly understand the time signature of the piece (¾):
After closing the A section in an abrupt manner, there is a moment of hesitation in which a single note (d flat) is repeated several times, first alone, and then added by the lower third (b flat) which leads right into the lyrical Trio section:
In this passage, the musical language is most romantic and obviously influenced by Chopin who was close friends with Alkan. The clear separation of the wave-like accompaniment from the singing upper voices refers to the bel canto style which became popular in piano music of that time and contrasts with the otherwise rather polyphonic texture of the piece. After the reentrance of the A section, shortly before the end of the movement, there is a moment in which the edginess of the music comes to a head, creating an almost hysterical activity through the perpetual repetition of a progression of three chords:
After the fifth repetition, the tension is finally resolved, leading to the end of the movement in which the music disperses into Nothing:
The Finale is a perpetuum mobile in alla breve meter and Rondo form with an appended stretto. The main theme consists of a series of octave jumps with growing intervals, starting from a fourth and ending up in an octave leap:
The structure of the theme is closely related to the Menuet theme (A section) in which there is also a succession of leaps, always starting from and returning to the note b flat and increasing in terms of the intervals:
The first leap of the Finale theme embraces the interval of a fourth; this interval reappears in the most original way by the end of the movement, being repeated several times in the lower register on the same two notes while the right hand undergoes various modulations. Alkan´s obvious intention here is to imitate the sound of a kettledrum which is not in tune with the rest of the orchestra:
Once again, as in the Menuet, humor reveals itself as a central element in Alkan´s music. As for the compositional techniques in this movement, there are several passages in which the music is either canonical or Fugato-like:
Thus one can say that this movement is highly virtuosic, not only on the pianistic, but also on the compositional level. Alkan´s ability to combine different motives, textures and compositional techniques leads to a musical firework that can be rather overwhelming, especially when listening to this music for the first time. Superficial examinations have often been leading to the conclusion that Alkan´s music is nothing but a banal display of pianistic virtuosity. But this does not do justice to the underlying structure, the complex motivic work and the genuineness of his compositions.
The complexity of our modern world and an increasing lack of musical education have been leading to a certain tendency of modern audiences to think in very simple categories of black and white when attempting to evaluate music. Highly virtuosic pieces of music are often regarded as superficial, whereas music that is free from any virtuosic effect is usually classified as more serious and profound. But the truth is far more complex. There is music that is both virtuosic and extremely profound as well as music that is not virtuosic and yet strikingly banal. It is not due to these categories, but due to the talent of the composer and the complexity of her/his inner life that a composition becomes truth- and meaningful.
The idea that works of art can contain seemingly contradictory elements also applies to human beings. If there is one thing we all have in common, it is the contrariness of our nature. Insofar, it is not surprising, but all the more moving to see that one of the few original photographs of Alkan, who was considered as one of the greatest virtuosi of his time and must have been rather extroverted on stage, shows him in a very modest, almost timid posture, turning his back to the camera:
A recommended recording: