Friday, January 20, 2012

Alkan - Impromptu For Pedal Piano

Was Charles Alkan really a mystery as the pianist Ronald Smith (a champion of Alkan's works) called him in the title to his biography of the composer  Alkan the Enigma?  There is an essay by Stephanie McCallum, herself a pianist and champion of Alkan's works in her own right, that discusses the possibility that Alkan suffered from a form of autism or a mental illness. The fact that Alkan went into seclusion about 1848 after a brilliant start to his career as a composer and performer does beg the question.  There are words by Alkan himself in a letter:

“I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous…nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do… no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see the point or goal”.

Those are words of a man who is cognizant enough to recognize what is happening to him, while at the same time not knowing why. Depression, Asperger's Syndrome, Schizophrenia,  are all possibilities but it will most likely remain speculation. Alkan did begin giving a few recitals later in life, but essentially remained a recluse.

There is no doubting the genius of Alkan as a performer. There is ample evidence through witnesses that heard him play. Liszt himself said that Alkan had the finest technique he had ever seen. And we have the proof of his genius as a composer with the music he wrote, which is much more available in print and recordings than ever before.  And no matter what the reason for his turning away from society, there is also no doubt that he was original to the point of being eccentric in some of his compositions. The Impromptu for pedal piano is a case in point.

If a music lover knows anything about Alkan or his music, it usually is that he was a pianist and wrote piano music. But he also could play the violin and was a virtuoso of the pedal piano. The pedal piano resembles a regular piano but with the addition of an entire piano played by the means of foot pedals, like the pedals of an organ.  Alkan wrote a substantial amount of music for this instrument. The pedal piano was in vogue for a short time in the 19th century. Robert Schumann also wrote music for it.   The pedal piano is now a rare instrument and much of Alkan's music written for it has been transcribed for the organ.

The Impromptu is based on Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God',  a somewhat odd choice for a Jewish musician to make.  It was written in the late 1860's and is possibly the last piece he wrote for the pedal piano. Ronald Smith has written that the piece, while written in one continuous movement is actually in four distinct sections. The work begins as a passacaglia, with the hymn tune serving as the continual bass melody, the second section is a scherzo, the third a siciliano and the fourth a fugue.  So it is far from being what an impromptu implies. It is a highly structured set of variations, imaginative in form and sound. Like the man himself,  the impromptu is a complicated mixture of genius, eccentricity, power and mystery.

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