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Alkan - Piano Music

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888) was a French composer and pianist of great originality. In his youth he was good friends with Chopin (who was his neighbour in Paris), Liszt and the writers George Sand and Victor Hugo. Later in life he withdrew from social life and lived as a recluse, engaging in intense study of the Bible and the Talmud.
His works, written almost exclusively for keyboard, are often quite unconventional, of enormous length and technically extremely demanding. As a performer, Alkan was interested in a wide repertory of historical music from Bach onwards and performed works such as the late Beethoven sonatas and Schubert’s piano music, not very fashionable at the time. He was proud of the strictness and precision of his own playing, and was a rigorous user of the metronome.

Alkan´s music was for a long time widely neglected, but in the last decades more and more pianists have begun to explore his music, not all of which is extravagantly difficult to play. The story that Alkan’s death was caused by a bookcase falling on him as he reached out for a volume of the Talmud has turned out to be entirely untrue.

Notable compositions:
- Chemin de fer, Op 27 (first composition ever describing a railroad in musical terms)
- Grande sonate Les quatre âges, Op. 33 (depicting the Four Ages of Man)
- Two sets of etudes in all the major and minor keys, Op. 35 and 39. (The opus 39 collection contains the Symphony for Solo Piano and the Concerto for Solo Piano)
- Chamber music compositions include a violin sonata (0p. 21), a cello sonata (Op. 47), and a piano trio (Op. 30).

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Total pieces by Alkan: 11

TitleASTKey Published Type Level
Saltarelle Op. 23E Minor 1844 Piece 8+
Barcarolle Op. 65 No. 6G Minor 1844 Piece 8+
Toccatina Op. 75C Minor 1872 Piece 8+

Twelve Studies in all the Minor Keys:
Symphonie 1st part Op. 39 No. 4C Minor 1857 Study 8+
Symphonie 2nd part Op. 39 No. 5F Minor 1857 Study 8+
Symphonie 3rd part Op. 39 No. 6B-flat Minor 1857 Study 8+
Symphonie 4th part Op. 39 No. 7E-flat Minor 1857 Study 8+
Concerto 1st part Op. 39 No. 8G-sharp Minor 1857 Study 8+
Concerto 2nd part Op. 39 No. 9C-sharp Minor 1857 Study 8+
Concerto 3rd part Op. 39 No. 10F-sharp Minor 1857 Study 8+
Aesop's Feast Op. 39 No. 12E Minor 1857 Study 8+

Posts in the piano forum about Alkan:

xx Alkan=Overrated Difficulty
November 30, 2006, 07:57:02 PM by jericho

Hi everyone AND happy birthday Alkan.

As anyone with sufficient knowledge of piano literature knows, Alkan wrote very demanding piano pieces. Indeed, they can be hellish but I think their difficulty is a bit overrated. Their technical demands can be equalled and surpassed by some pieces in the standard repertoire.

Is Allegreto alla Barbaresca more difficult than Scarbo? Is Scherzo Focoso more demanding than Islamey? How about any Alkan piece compared to Brahms' Paganini Variations?

Yes, Alkan pieces are terribly hard. But I don't think the great pianists avoid it because of their immense difficulty. There are a lot of virtuosi who are clearly capable of playing it but chose not to...Richter, Horowitz, Argerich, Cziffra, Hofmann, Lhevinne, Barere, Libetta, Kissin..
IMO, anyone who can manage Islamey, Gaspard de la Nuit, the Hammerklavier or even the Don Juan Fantasy and Feux Follets can also play Alkan if they choose to.

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