Charles-Valentin Alkan ( 30 November 1813 – 29 March 1888) was a French composer and pianist. At the height of his fame in the 1830s and 1840s he was, alongside his friends and colleagues Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, among the leading virtuoso pianists in Paris, a city in which he spent virtually his entire life.
Alkan earned many awards at the Conservatoire de Paris, which he entered before he was six. His career in the salons and concert halls of Paris was marked by his occasional long withdrawals from public performance, for personal reasons.
Although he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the Parisian artistic world, including Eugène Delacroix and George Sand, from 1848 he began to adopt a reclusive life style, while continuing with his compositions, virtually all of which are for the keyboard.
During this period he published, among other works, his collections of large-scale studies in all the major keys (Op. 35) and all the minor keys .
The latter includes his Symphony for Solo Piano (Op. 39, nos. 4–7) and Concerto for Solo Piano (Op. 39, nos. 8–10), which are often considered among his masterpieces and are of great musical and technical complexity. Alkan emerged from self-imposed retirement in the 1870s to give a series of recitals that were attended by a new generation of French musicians.
Alkan’s attachment to his Jewish origins is displayed both in his life and his work. He was the first composer to incorporate Jewish melodies in art music. Fluent in Hebrew and Greek, he devoted much time to a complete new translation of the Bible into French. This work, like many of his musical compositions, is now lost.
Alkan never married, but his presumed son Élie-Miriam Delaborde was, like Alkan, a virtuoso performer on both the piano and the pedal piano, and edited a number of the elder composer’s works.
Following his death (which according to persistent but unfounded legend was caused by a falling bookcase) Alkan’s music became neglected, supported by only a few musicians including Ferruccio Busoni, Egon Petri and Kaikhosru Sorabji. From the late 1960s onwards, led by Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, many pianists have recorded his music and brought it back into the repertoire.
Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange on 30 November 1813 at 1, Rue de Braque in Paris to Alkan Morhange (1780–1855) and Julie Morhange, née Abraham.
Alkan Morhange was descended from a long-established Jewish Ashkenazic community in the region of Metz; the village of Morhange is located about 30 miles (48 km) from the city of Metz.
Charles-Valentin was the second of six children – one elder sister and four younger brothers; his birth certificate indicates that he was named after a neighbour who witnessed the birth.
Alkan Morhange supported the family as a musician and later as the proprietor of a private music school in le Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris.
At an early age, Charles-Valentin and his siblings adopted their father’s first name as their last (and were known by this during their studies at the Conservatoire de Paris and subsequent careers). His brother Napoléon (1826–1906) became professor of solfège at the Conservatoire, his brother Maxim (1818–1897) had a career writing light music for Parisian theatres, and his sister, Céleste (1812–1897), was also a pianist.
His brother Ernest (1816–1876) was a professional flautist, while the youngest brother Gustave (1827–1882) was to publish various dances for the piano.
According to his death certificate, Alkan died in Paris on 29 March 1888 at the age of 74. Alkan was buried on 1 April (Easter Sunday) in the Jewish section of Montmartre Cemetery, Paris, not far from the tomb of his contemporary Fromental Halévy; his sister Céleste was later buried in the same tomb.
For many years it was believed that Alkan met his death when a bookcase toppled over and fell on him as he reached for a volume of the Talmud from a high shelf. This tale, which was circulated by the pianist Isidor Philipp, is dismissed by Hugh Macdonald, who reports the discovery of a contemporary letter by one of his pupils explaining that Alkan had been found prostrate in his kitchen, under a porte-parapluie (a heavy coat/umbrella rack), after his concierge heard his moaning.
He had possibly fainted, bringing it down on himself while grabbing out for support. He was reportedly carried to his bedroom and died later that evening.
The story of the bookcase may have its roots in a legend told of Aryeh Leib ben Asher, rabbi of Metz, the town from which Alkan’s family originated.