Busoni named Charles-Valentin Alkan with Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms as the greatest post-Beethoven composers for the piano. Yet, this remarkable and fascinating composer is still relatively obscure.
Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange to a Jewish family in Paris in 1813. He and his brothers took their father's first name, Alkan, as their last. Alkan spent his life in and around Paris and died there in 1888, aged 74.
Alkan was child a prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six as a violinist, where he studied mainly piano and organ. His teachers included Joseph Zimmermann, who also taught Georges Bizet, César Franck, Charles Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas.
In his twenties, Alkan played concerts in elegant social circles and taught piano. His friends included Liszt and Chopin, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. By the age of twenty-four, he had built a reputation as one of the great virtuoso pianists of his day, rivaling Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. Alkan then withdrew into private study, with only occasional forays into the limelight, for the remainder of his life. In spite of his early fame and technical accomplishment, he spent most of his life in obscurity, performing in public only occasionally. There are periods of his life about which little is known, other than that he was immersed in the study of Bible and Talmud.
Like Chopin, Alkan wrote almost exclusively for the piano. His most important works are the Grande Sonate Les Quatre Ages (opus 33) and the two sets of Etudes in all the major and minor keys (opus 35 in the major and opus 39 in the minor). These last match even the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in scale and difficulty. Numbers eight nine and ten of opus 39 together form the Concerto for Solo Piano, which takes nearly an hour to play and presents a great challenge to the performer. Number four, five, six and seven together constitute the Symphony for Solo Piano. Alkan is also noted for his miniature piano pieces, such as the Equisses op 63, which demonstrate the composer's range and inventiveness.
Musically, many of his ideas were unconventional, even innovative. Some of his multi-movement compositions show "progressive tonality" which would have been familiar to Nielsen (for example, the first chamber concerto begins in A minor and ends in E major). He was rigorous in avoiding enharmonic spelling, occasionally modulating to keys containing double-sharps or double-flats, to the annoyance of pianists who are forced to deal with aberrations such as occasional triple-sharps.
For many years after his death, Alkan's work was almost completely forgotten by the public, yet was highly respected by composers such as Busoni, Sorabji, and Rubinstein (who dedicated his fifth piano concerto to Alkan).
Alkan died under bizarre and tragic circumstances after falling from a piece of furniture while trying to retrieve a book from the high shelf. Many believed that Alkan was crushed by his copy of the Talmud, but this colorful detail is now considered to be apocryphal.
There has been a steady revival of interest in Alkan and his compositions over the course of the twentieth century. This revival is due in large part to promotion by such artists as Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, who both wrote about Alkan, and recorded his music. Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin is arguably today's finest Alkan promoter, recording and performing some of the composer's most challenging and rewarding works.