(b. Paris, 1813; d. Paris, 1888)
Also known as Charles-Valentin Morhange.
A French pianist and composer, raised an Orthodox Jew, one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in music history as well as one of the most gifted virtuosos to ever play the piano, with a reputation on an equal level to Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Liszt. Like these legendary figures, he is in a class of pianists whose skill was so great as to be almost beyond belief.
Alkan was a child prodigy, like the vast majority of history's great pianists. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, and was a well-respected virtuoso by age seventeen. This was before his individuality developed, and he moved in the same circles as close friends and influential peers Chopin and Liszt. He was also friends with authors George Sand and Victor Hugo. Paris was the place to be.
Beginning in his 20's, he began to withdraw from society and give no more concerts. He composed and taught much, and was nearly as highly-sought a teacher as was Chopin. He rarely left his apartment. Besides students, only close friends were allowed to visit him. Friedrich Niecks, a scholar of the piano, once tried to visit Alkan in 1880; after the concierge informed him that Alkan was not in, he asked when Alkan would be home. "Never!" was the reply.
He spent long periods of his life musically inactive, reportedly involved in Biblical and Talmudic studies, and also doing a translation of the New Testament into French. Accounts describe him as highly eccentric and misanthropic, and also apparently had quite a sense of humor. His Marcia Funebre sulla Morte d'un Pappagallo ("Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot") is a parody of the religious music of the day, including the choral lyrics "As-tu déjeuné, Jacot?" (Basically equivalent to "Polly want a cracker?")
As for Alkan's piano playing, Franz Liszt once remarked to Frits Hartvigson that Alkan had the finest technique that he had ever encountered. Others who heard him play regarded him as an exciting virtuoso who was very imaginative with the pedal. If he could play his own studies as they are written, which by all accounts he could, he must have been incredible, because they are among the most impossibly difficult pieces ever written for the instrument, equal to Liszt's Transcendental Studies in difficulty and scale. The pianist Roland Smith, after analyzing Alkan's compositions, writes that he must have been "a unique pianist combining all the finest attributes of the French school - its equality of touch, clarity, lucidity and rhythmic severity with the intellectual penetration of a Busoni."
Pianist Francesco Berger wrote in 1918 about his experience at one of Alkan's petits concerts that he gave sporadically in his later years. The playing was "masterly... free from any kind of extravagance... firmness, repose and sobriety in rhythm and dynamics... clearness of phrasing and the richness of delicate shading... avoidance of the abuse of tempo rubato."
Other admirers of Alkan include Busoni and Anton Rubinstein, incredible players themselves. Alkan considered himself overshadowed by Franz Liszt.
Perhaps the most well known story about Alkan is the legend of his death... it is said that he was reaching for the Talmud off a high shelf of his bookshelf, prompting it to topple over and crush him. This story is thought to be most likely false, but interesting.