Charles-Valentin Alkan: Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique, op. 15

…unlike Wagner, Alkan did not seek to refashion the world through opera; nor, like Berlioz, to dazzle the crowds by putting orchestral music at the service of literary expression; nor even, as with Chopin or Liszt, to extend the field of harmonic idiom. Armed with his key instrument, the piano, he sought incessantly to transcend its inherent technical limits, remaining apparently insensible to the restrictions which had withheld more restrained composers…

François-Sappey (1991), 130 (translated from the original French).

When you say “greatest pianists of the Romantic era” or “of the early 19th century,” Chopin and Liszt and Brahms and others (Clara Schumann) come to mind, but Charles-Valentin Alkan is likely not one of those people. I would have written an “Influential People” post about him, but he…. largely wasn’t.
Despite being friends with both Chopin and Liszt, and being named by Liszt as having “the finest technique he had ever known,” but also acknowledging that he “preferred the life of a recluse.”
These two qualities don’t necessarily go so well together, and Wikipedia acknowledges that Alkan was “among the leading virtuoso pianists in Paris, a city in which he spent virtually his entire life,” but also that “Alkan had few followers; however, he had important admirers, including Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Franck, and, in the early twentieth century, Busoni, Petri and Sorabji.” The admiration from Sorabji seems unsurprising.

recluse? it seems so

In the little bit of listening I’ve done to Alkan’s works, I’ve been very intrigued, even a bit surprised at how relatively unknown he is considering the amazing quality of his works. His works are focused almost solely on the piano and have a very strongly romantic, virtuosic and passionate quality about them that comes off as quintessentially French, to me. Today’s work is one of his earlier pieces, but for a “three pieces” title, it’s big. Schoenberg and Babbitt’s previous
“three pieces” works were both quite small, yet this one runs at close to half an hour in length.
All things considered (his status in Paris, his connections, his talents, all of it), it seems he was well on his way to becoming a figure whose name would last in history, and in the sense that he hasn’t been entirely forgotten, he has lasted, just not with the lasting prestige and fame that his friends attained.

I was coming off a short stint of Schubert sonatas when I decided this piece would be on my to do list (probably eight or nine months ago), and listening to the first movement made me feel in some capacity the same way I felt when I put on the Gymnopédies, like an old, melancholy, pensive French black and white film, except this time with more unrequited love and passion than just melancholy. 
This piece itself is dedicated to Liszt, and each of the three pieces in the suite features a different idea that makes it memorable within the suite. 
The first, Aime-moi, is perhaps the quietest (not in the sense of ‘not loud’, but maybe… most delicate?) of the three. It is in A-flat minor and quite Chopin-esque in the way it opens. The whole thing feels French, but darker than Chopin would be, at least for that long. The piece increases in intensity as it progresses to its climax, not only in volume and drama, but also in subdivisions. It starts with eighth notes, then triplets, then sixteenth notes, on all the way up through five, six and seven notes per beat up to eight. I thought Wikipedia actually said this, because I felt so certain of its meaning that I thought I must have read it somewhere: this is a heartbeat; someone’s heart beats faster and faster as they approach an object of affection, or as a relationship grows. The main theme reappears, and the movement relaxes down into a freer style, but what’s also happened is that while the piece has grown more and more intense, we’ve moved from A-flat minor to A-flat major. These developments throughout the piece mean (to me at least) that a relationship has developed and flourished. The piece, however, is still quite ‘dark,’ to me, but what an enjoyable listen. 
The second, Le Vent, is very etude-like, and was apparently one of Alkan’s only pieces to show up in recitals with any regularity for a time. It is in three very clearly defined sections. What you’ll notice, almost annoyingly to me, is that the A and A’ sections at either end of this piece, in B minor, have incessant chromatic scales that run up and down over a rather melancholy tenor-voice melody. The voices switch places now and then, and it becomes apparent that Alkan has a penchant for using the entire range of the keyboard to maximum effect. The middle section finally gives us a chance to breathe, with the now-gritty and buzzingly annoying chromatic passages being replaced by arpeggios, which now feel spacious and soft, not to mention being in D major, a bright and sunny area of the piece. This passage again calls Chopin to mind, at least for me, in it’s brighter, virtuosic, tenderly romantic expression, but the chromatic winds return, except that this time we don’t have a somber, torpid melody but tremolos, giving a very unsettled feel to the only thing in this A section that felt… stable at all. The chromaticism in the very lowest bass notes is dramatic and thundering, but the opening theme finally returns one last time more transparently, and again, more surprisingly here, we end in the parallel major key, B major, instead of the B minor we started with. At least that’s a positive-sounding idea…
The third and final movement, Morte, (death) leaves little sunny disposition left for the listener. It opens quietly, but the first thing we hear, not hidden or alluded to, is a direct presentation of the Dies Irae theme that some composers have a penchant for using or hiding in their music. Alkan gives it to us outright, and needless to say it sets the mood for this longest piece of the set. There’s a constant b-flat that rings out through the piece. While this morceau is at many turns loud and tumultuous, it still moves me to chills, and the quieter, more pained passages balance out the last of the three movements. While none of the three movements have any sonata-like structures or interconnectedness, this piece seems to be the most developed, and it does quote the themes from the previous two movements. About three minutes in, when the Dies Irae is gone, there’s a melody that appears that seems so triumphant against the backdrop of tragedy, so beautiful and moving, that it makes this last piece seem the most epic. It makes me wonder if there is some main character throughout these three pieces. Death overshadows him in this final movement, but it is a beautifully tragic ride, and of all three, feels the most like a tone poem or tragic story than an ABA’ long etude or little atmosphere piece. This one really speaks. Something that apparently is a feature of Alkan’s work, a device he would often use, is the sudden clash of chords or a banging finish at the end of a piece after a long, quiet passage, and he does it here, and it makes me jump every time. The piece ends suddenly, and that’s that. 
Compare two contemporary responses to this piece. Schumann: 

It has a considerable flavour of Sue and Sand. One is startled by such false, unnatural art … We always make allowances for erring talent … but when nothing is to be found but black on black, we turn away in discouragement

… and Liszt:

“read and re-read many a time since the day when they brought me such great joy. These are compositions which could not be more distinguished and, all friendly prejudice aside, are likely to excite the deep interest of musicians.”

Granted, the latter could be a bit biased as the dedicatee of the work, but if you were to listen to this and guess whether Liszt or Schumann wrote the work, there’s very little in this that relates at all to Schumann. In its dramatic virtuosity and fury, it’s very Lisztian, so… I can see how they’d agree on the style. The Wikipedia article also shares nice sentiments about the piece from Sorabji that are worth looking into, but I’ve quoted too much already.
Having listened seriously to only a very few of this man’s other compositions, this is a piece that makes me wonder why I haven’t listened to more. It’s quite approachable, easy to understand, and shows such a distinct musicality that perhaps it’s no wonder it took until the last century for it to really catch on among many pianists. The three titles are simple, direct references to the atmosphere of each of the movements (pieces or movements?!) and aside from the incessant chromatic runs in the second movement, none of it gets old or boring.
Bravo. One more week of piano next week, and then we’re off to something very different.


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