Charles-Valentin Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange on
November 30th, 1813 in Paris to Alkan Morhange and Julie Morhange
née Abraham. The second of six children, he and his siblings adopted their
father's first name as their last at an early age. Alkan was a child prodigy
and entered the Conservatoire de Paris at only six years of age. During his
years at the Conservatoire he won prizes in piano, harmony, solfège and organ.
At the age of twelve, he gave his first concert as a pianist, performing his
own compositions, at a private home.
During his twenties, Alkan reached the height of his career.
He taught and gave concerts, and was friends with many of Paris's leading
artistic figures, including Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, George Sand and
Victor Hugo. He was considered one of the leading piano virtuosi of the day rivaled
only by Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. However, at his peak in 1838, he withdrew
into private study and composition, and did not perform publicly again until
In 1848, he lobbied for the position of head of the piano
department at the Conservatoire after the retirement of his former teacher,
Joseph Zimmerman. However, his expectations were dashed and the appointment
went to one of Alkan's former pupils. Alkan was severely disappointed over the
incident and it may have caused his gradual recession
from public life. He gave two concerts in 1853 but otherwise lived a secluded
life for the next twenty-five years.
Despite his seclusion, Alkan maintained friendships and
continued to compose. Like Liszt, Alkan's works are technically challenging and
require exceptional skill to execute. His most well-known works are his Grand
sonate Les quatre ages and two sets
of etudes in all the major and minor keys. Unfortunately, many of his
compositions have been lost, including chamber music and a symphony for
orchestra. In addition to music, he was an ardent student of the Bible and the
Talmud, and is believed to have completed a full translation of the entire Old
and New Testaments into French from the original languages. This significant
undertaking, however, has also been lost.
Alkan eventually emerged from his secluded life to give a
series of concerts at the Érard piano showrooms, performing his own works as
well as those by composers from Bach onward. On March 29th, 1888,
Alkan died in Paris.
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