Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alkan - Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Opus 33

Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote his Grand Sonata 'The Four Ages' after he returned to performing in 1844 after a six-year hiatus. The work was published in 1847. Alkan lived in an apartment in Paris, the Square d'Orléans for about ten years and was a neighbor to Chopin. They became close friends, and he became acquainted with many other artists that lived in Paris at the time, including Franz Liszt. 

The work is in 4 movements, with each one portraying the ages of a man. Alkan wrote a preface to the published work where he expressed his intentions with the titles and structure of the sonata:

Much has been said and written about the limits of musical expression. Without adopting such and such a rule, without seeking to answer any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I shall simply say why I have given such titles to these four parts, and sometimes use quite unusual terms. 
It is not a question here of imitative music, still less music seeking its own justification, the reason for its effect, its value, in an extra musical environment. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and the fourth an andante and a largo, but each of them corresponds, in my case, to a particular moment of existence, to a particular disposition of the imagination. Why should I not point it out? The musical element will always subsist, and the expression can only gain by it, executing it, without renouncing it, it is inspired by the very idea of ​​the composer. Such a name and a thing seem to clash, taken in a material sense, which, in the intellectual domain, combine perfectly. I believe, then, that I ought to be better understood and better interpreted with these indications, however ambitious they appear at first glance.

Let me, moreover, be permitted to invoke Beethoven's authority. It is well known that towards the end of his career this great man was working on a catalog of his principal works, in which he was to be instructed on what plan, what remembrance, what kind of inspiration the work had been conceived.
I. 20 ans (at 20 years) Très vite' (very fast) - The plan of this sonata is quite unique for the time, as each movement is slower than the previous one, and the sonata opens with the movement with the quickest tempo, a scherzo. This musical portrayal of a twenty year old man begins with spirit and brashness as the music begins in D major, and ends up with a chord in B minor:

A more lyrical theme plays out and the opening material makes another appearance. The lyrical theme returns on chords in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left. A short coda in B major brings the movement to a close.

II. 30 ans (at 30 years) Assez vite (quite fast) -  The next movement is not only the longest  of the sonata, but it contains much of the extreme technical and interpretive difficulties of the work. It is a musical representation of the Faust legend, and is complete with musical representations of Faust, The Devil and Margaurite. There has been discussion among musicians and musicologists as to how this sonata movement may have inspired Franz Liszt in his writing of his Piano Sonata In B Minor. Eight years separate the publication of Alkan's sonata (1847) and Liszt's (1854) so it is possible that Liszt saw the music of Alkan's sonata. But there is no evidence that he did, nor a clue that  Alkan's sonata was ever performed in public until the 1970's.  Alkan gives the tempo designation of Satanically to the beginning of the music, which begins in the rare key of D-sharp minor and represents Faust:
The first section of this movement proceeds in dramatic fashion with rumbling, dashing music until the Devil himself shows up. There is no mistaking who it is, for Alkan marks his entrance in the music. The Devil's theme is in B major, pompous, loud and saunters in a slightly off-kilter rhythm:
The music continues in Mephistophelian bombast until the next character of the story is introduced, the symbol of love in the story, Marguerite, a woman who falls in love with Faust but comes to a bad end through the machinations of the Devil. Marguerite's theme begins in G-sharp minor in music of simple tenderness. (The theme begins in the 4th beat of the 4th bar)
This theme changes to G-sharp major (another rare key) and also turns dramatic. This movement is in sonata form, and now that the three character themes have been introduced in the exposition, Alkan proceeds to play them against each other in a development section of highly dramatic and virtuosic music. The music of the development winds down into huge arpeggios in alternating hands that traverse the length of the keyboard:
But the music does not proceed to the recapitulation just yet. Slowly a four-bar theme marked et aussi lié que possible (as connected as possible) plays in the bass. It is the subject of a fugue that is played out before the recapitulation. This fugue grows until it reaches its limit of eight separate voices spread out over 4 staffs of dauntingly complex music:
Themes return and are transformed as the recapitulation builds to a heady climax in F-sharp major representing victory over evil.

III. 40 ans (at 40 years) Lentement (slowly) - The incredible demands of the previous movement, both technically and musically, are countered in the third movement by music that is more mellow and lyrical.The movement has the subtitle Un heureux ménage (A happy household). The life of a man surrounded by his family, with sections that depict children and evening prayers are included:

IV. 50 ans (at 50 years) Extrêmement lent (extremely slow) - The year after this sonata was published was 1848, the year that revolutions occurred in many countries in Europe, including France. Paris was in turmoil as the February Revolution in France began to undo the constitutional monarchy in favor of what became the 2nd Republic. In the chaos of change, Alkan was passed over for the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Due to intrigues and politics, a minor musician got the job instead, with Alkan becoming bitter over the loss of the position. The revolution also took its toll on any publicity Alkan's sonata may have gotten, and the work itself was unique in form and technically difficult, which also didn't help it any.

Subtitled Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound), Alkan includes on the title page of the movement some lines from the ancient Greek play about the Titan Prometheus that was condemned to suffer eternally for bringing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. This version of the myth is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. Alkan quotes lines 750-754, 1051 and 1091, words that mirror the Romantic era excesses of personal emotions:
 Ah, you would hardly bear my agonies to whom it is not foredoomed to die; for death would have freed me from my sufferings. Do what he will, me he shall never bring to death. You see the wrongs I suffer!
The myth has Prometheus chained to a rock, and an eagle eats his liver. Every day his liver grows back and he has to suffer the torment of the eagle eating it again.

This myth and the lines from the Greek play set the stage for a man at fifty years of age, a life that consists of waiting for death. The movement begins with ominous rumblings:

 The movement is in the key of G-sharp minor, a key far removed from the key of D major that began the sonata. The mood of somber resignation of death seldom lifts from the music as it restlessly plods on until the closing bars that rise in volume and intensity, only to give out in the final bar that is played pianissimo.

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