“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.
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.