The Criminally Unknown Tale of Charles-Valentin Alkan

Ryan Modafe

March 08, 2024

In the 19th century, classical music was analogous to today’s pop hits. Women swooned over rock stars like Franz Liszt, dazzling audiences with his virtuosic shows. The masses would attend Beethoven’s Symphony premiers to hear the absolute beauties he would compose. Names like Mozart, Bach, and Chopin became ingrained into European culture. However, in some mysterious fashion, many names have been swept under the rug of acclaim. The outstanding works of composers like Clementi, Moszkowski, Lyapunov, and Meyerbeer are neglected to an unfathomable degree in the standard repertoire. Among these obscure individuals, one name stands out above all: Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Alkan was born in 1813 in Paris, originally under the last name “Morhange.” He started studying music at the astoundingly young age of 5, auditioning for the Conservatoire de Paris for both Piano and Organ. Immediately, professors recognized this young man's superb talents. He soon became referred to as “Le jeune Alkan,” a tribute to his father, a fine musician. As Alkan grew in musicianship, so did his fame. He became a rising star in the classical world, rivaling the technique and physical feats of Liszt with the poetic and captivating musical writing of Chopin. His public concerts were riveting successes and he moved to the Square d’Orléans in 1838, a place of inhabitance for all the greats of the time, seemingly cementing his celebrity status. 

Alas, his career took a turn for the worse. With the birth of his son Élie-Miriam Delaborde in 1839, he stepped out of the spotlight of performance and composing to focus on tending to his child. Very little is known of his activities during this time as he kept to himself for almost the entirety of a period until 1844 when he returned to the concert stage. While there was much praise for his nearly perfect technique, strongly reflected in his compositions, he had few followers. As such, when his untimely death came in 1888, his music almost disappeared out of circulation. A few influential composers of the early 20th century such as Ferruccio Busoni and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji championed his works. But, it was not until the late 20th century that especially famous figures in the piano world like Jack Gibbons and Marc-Andre Hamelin recorded renditions of Alkan’s “Douze Etudes pour les tons minors” and brought Alkan forth to the mainstream classical audience. While his music still has not found its way to the center stage like those of Beethoven, more and more listeners continue to understand the unique beauty and perspective Alkan offers, putting him among the best composers for the piano.