Charles Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music.
Charles Valentin Alkan is one of the nineteenth century's most intractable musical enigmas. Despite notable contributions over the last thirty years by Ronald Smith (Alkan, 2 vols. [London: Kahn & Averill, 1976-871; reprint, Alkan: The Man, The Music [London: Kahn 8c Averill, 2000]), Britta Schilling (Virtuose Klaviermusik des 19. Jahrhunderts run Beispiel Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) [Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1986|), and Brigitte Francois-Sappey (as editor of Charles Valentin Alkan [Paris: Fayard, 1991]), few musicians and even fewer musicologists consider Alkan to be a major figure in the French romantic musical movement. As an extraordinarily gifted pianist nurtured in the curriculum of the conservatoire, Alkan receded into the shadows of the Parisian musical scene as ostensibly more compelling characters like Franz Liszt, Sigismond Thalberg, and a host of other foreign virtuosos brought Parisian audiences to their feet. As a reclusive composer, he billed massive piano etudes as symphonies and solo concertos, issued character pieces with Satie-esque titles like "Fa" and "En rythme molossique." and set to music the sounds of the synagogue with a seriousness that not even Mahler dared try half a century later. More than Berlioz or Liszt, Alkan was the embodiment of the French romantic hero: lost, like Childe Harold, in self-analysis, withdrawn from his surroundings, moving in directions that yielded no tangible recognition. In this sense it is hardly surprising that the most enduring report about Alkan is the notice of his earthly departure in Le, menestrel on 1 April 1888: "Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence."
William Alexander Eddie, in Charles Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music, attempts to bring Alkan and his music out of this historical purgatory and into the twenty-first-century musical arena. Through close but. short analyses of virtually the whole of Alkan's output, Eddie portrays the artist as a "conservative radical" (p. x). The characterization is apt, for Alkan at times retreated into the past as much as his music adumbrated future compositional trends. The composer's nostalgia for the ancien regime, for instance, may have prompted a heavy investment in the works of J. S. Bach, Louis Couperin, Rameau, and other practitioners of the clavecin, but the resulting PetitsConcerts that Alkan gave between 1873 and 1880 were ahead of their time in terms of repertory and execution. Even Alkan's stylistic fingerprints, which include an intense focus around a single pitch, massive block chord constructions, and "distillation of ideas, direction, rhythmic drive, novel sonorities and an idiosyncratic sense of dry musical humour" (p. 209), become all the more stark when profiled against his almost exclusive reliance on ostensibly defunct (or at least outmoded) eighteenth-century dance and sonata forms. Eddie's challenge is to demonstrate how these contradictory tendencies operate within Alkan's substantive output, most of which remains largely unknown and inaccessible.
To that end, only chapter 1 ("Alkan--The Historical and Social Background") touches on aspects of the composer's biography; the remaining thirteen chapters deal almost exclusively with Alkan the composer and performing pianist. Eddie organizes these chapters by genre, an approach which allows him to comment upon almost every piece that Alkan published. Although he admits that this vast collection sports "the frequent coexistence of startling musical originality alongside stereotyped banality" (p. 215), Eddie nevertheless successfully helps the reader navigate around some of Alkan's more heinous musical flotsam, uncovering quite a few gems along the way: the mocking "L'Opera," op. 74, no. 12-a particularly successful work in Robert Schumann's estimation: the 2e Recueil de chavis, op. 38; and the highly inventive yet often overlooked Esquisses, op. 63. Such a thorough and opinionated investigation of the music allows Eddie to situate Alkan in an active historical continuum that stretches from the baroque to the twentieth century. Moreover, contextualizing Alkan's music with reference to works by Louis Couperin, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Chopin, Faure, and Bartok--to name but. a few composers--attests to an inventive and ambitious artistic personality.
However, Eddie's mandate to cover all of Alkan's material restricts the degree to which topics that transcend generic considerations can be addressed. (Chapters 7 ["The Esquisses"]and 10 ["Piano and Strings"! are the two chapters that break with the generic model and instead organize themselves topically. The results are immediately evident: the prose is more limber, the tone more inviting, and the observations more penetrating.) For example, Eddie's frequent references to Alkan's stylistic development suggest the rich hermeneutic dividends that this topic might yield, but it is a discussion constantly undermined by the demands of the book's format. As such, a piece like the popular Salterelle, op. 23, is described in chapter 6 ("Morceaux Caracteristiques [sic]") as "the most extroverted of Alkan's middle style pieces" (p. 96). However, without a clear sense of what constitutes Alkan's "early" and "late" styles, even what the chronological boundaries of these purported styles might be, the Salterelle must remain stylistically isolated. No conclusive stylistic picture ever materializes, in fact, and it is incumbent on the reader to infer Alkan's three (?) styles from Eddie's copious but often disjointed observations--an approach which, too, is frequently thwarted. Compare, for example, statements on two works published in the same year: Eddie writes of the March, op. 37, no. 2, that "the coda unfortunately harks back to the earliest style of Alkan in relying on contemporary virtuosic formulae" (p. 105), but that "The coda [ of the fifth Chant, from op. 58] as is often the case in Alkan's works is particularly successful" (p. 107), If two works composed around the same time exhibit such divergent stylistic tendencies, then perhaps a chronological parsing of stylistic periods is not the ideal way to come to terms with Alkan's music.
More generally, there is rarely a unifying theme or set of goals for a given chapter, the result being that the genre itself thus assumes organizational responsibility, But given the general breakdown of' generic boundaries that occurred with Beethoven and his successors, including Alkan, a reliance on the genre "speaking for itself," as it were, is potentially dangerous. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that an impression of methodological anarchy runs throughout most of Eddie's chapters. Why, for example, does chapter 4 conclude (pp. 74-75) its consideration of Alkan'& Etudes by focusing on those of Liszt and Chopin? Why adopt analytic approaches from "the discipline of musical semiotics" (pp. 208-11) so late in the book and for so short a period? To be sure, these are topics that deserve closer scrutiny, but their odd appearances in the book contribute more confusion than clarity.
Unfortunately, these important issues, notwithstanding their frequent false starts and unraveled loose ends, quickly get lost in a relentless ocean of poor prose and even poorer proofreading. Even before opening the book, the reader is informed that the composition gracing the front and back cover of the dust jacket is the "Opening page of Le Festin D'escope [sic]"--a fairly serious misspelling in its own right, but especially egregious given the presence of the perfectly readable title "Le Festin d'Esopt" in the photograph. Of course, occasional slips of the pen and stylistic inconsistencies are only natural in a study of this size (especially when dealing with numerous foreign-language materials), but the alarming frequency of error quickly tests the reader's patience. A construction like "The musical texts of Alkan throw up far fewer editorial problems than those of Chopin and Liszt" (p. ix) may elicit an embarrassed smile, and the observation that "the delicamente section is quite delightfully delicate" (p. 47) is harmless enough. But both the frequently convoluted--"The transitional material consists of a flurry of parallel semiquavers with a repeated octave hammer blow to effect the modulation gradually encompassing the characteristic right hand rhythmic cell of the opening" (p. 90)--and sometimes even nonsensical passages--as in the "complete" sentence "The pulsating opening texture at once imitating orchestral strings and displays Alkali's massed style of pianism." (p. 71)--make the absence of a seasoned copy editor and the insouciance of the author intensely and persistently patent.
This ambivalence toward the text itself is disappointing, for not only does Eddie's book become a suspect resource (with so little attention paid to style and production values, what guarantee does the reader have that the "factual" information is even accurate?), but also the growth of Alkan scholarship--particularly in the English-speaking world--becomes stunted. After all, given that a major publisher of academic music books has invested considerable resources in what arguably should be a foundational resource in the field of Alkan studies, the likelihood of another Alkan biography or study of his music materializing in the near future is slim at best. If Alkan is to be taken seriously, if he is to move beyond his infamous role as the great nineteenth-century musical sphinx, then he needs, first and foremost, to be perceived as a subject worthy of serious historical, musical, and cultural inquiry.
JONATHAN KREGOR University of Cincinnati
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|Title Annotation:||COMPOSER STUDIES|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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