Compact Discoveries
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2002 by Fred Flaxman

Program 14
"All About Alkan"

MUSIC (0:21): Gounod: Funeral March of a Marionette (using the part that served as the theme music for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series) [London 436 797-2, track 7] [Down and under...] [0:21]

FLAXMAN (0:25): Whose death do you think is commemorated in this music - a parrot or a marionette? Well, my own confusion about the answer to this question led me from the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where this was the theme, to the music of Charles Valentin Alkan. I'll tell you how this happened and why I'm delighted it did on this edition of Compact Discoveries. [0:46]

MUSIC (0:23): Up, then down and out. [1:09]

FLAXMAN (2:47): Hi, this is Fred Flaxman, your host for Compact Discoveries, a program where we explore lyrical music by little-known composers and little-known gems by the celebrated masters.

I love the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And I also remember with a warm spot in my heart his weekly television series. When I first started collecting compact discs, I wanted desperately to have a copy of the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Buried deep in my memory was a scrap of information that I picked up, I don't know where, that this music was from a funeral march for some animal - a parrot, I thought. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember who the composer was.

Years later I came across a CD filled with the music of a French composer I had never heard of - Charles Valentin Alkan. That's A-L-K-A-N. The last piece on the disc was the Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot. Actually, the name was given only in Italian, so I still wasn't sure what animal had died. In any case, I forked out a great deal of money for this foreign import with the hope that this was the piece I had been searching for.

It wasn't. But that's how I discovered Alkan. The theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents turned out to be the Funeral March on the Death of a Marionette by another 19th Century French composer, another Charles for that matter - Charles Gounod. Now, if you want the piece in your collection as much as I wanted it in mine, you'll find it on a London CD called Psycho: Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers, which also includes North by Northwest, Vertigo , Spellbound, Marnie and A Portrait of Hitch from The Trouble with Harry.

But I found that I also enjoy Alkan's mock funeral march. I'm going to play it for you in a minute. First, though, I have to give you a quick French lesson to make sure you understand all of the sparse lyrics. Without understanding the words, you'd miss the humor of this Monty Pythonesque piece. It's a parody of the operatic and religious music of its day.

Alkan starts with an introductory bogus funeral march. Then the singers enter with "As-tu déjeuné, Jacot?" Jacot is the French equivalent of Polly; "As-tu déjeuné" - which means "Have you eaten?" - is what the French say to their parrots when we would say "Polly wants a cracker?" The only other words in the piece are: "Et de quoi?" - literally, and of what? What did you eat?

Now with your new-found French firmly in mind, let's listen to the Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot by Charles Alkan. [3:56]

MUSIC (9:43): Alkan: Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot [ADDA 581285, Track 15] [13:39]

FLAXMAN (2:53): That was the Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot by Charles Valentin Alkan. The words were taken from the French equivalent of "Polly wants a cracker?" by the great female poet, author and composer, Ann Onymous. Performance was by the Ensemble 2E 2M (The 2E, 2M Ensemble), a French chamber group. The singers were Nell Froger, soprano; Anne Bartelloni, mezzo-soprano; Bruno Boterf, tenor; and François Fauche, bass. This piece is one of several by Alkan on an ADDA release, and it's an all-digital recording.

If you've never heard of Alkan before, you certainly haven't heard of Charles Valentin Morhange. That was Alkan's real name. I don't know why he preferred Alkan, which, pronounced the American way - Al-kan - sounds like a better name for the merger of Alaska and Kansas, than it does for a composer... or perhaps like an acronym for the Aluminum Can Company.
Be that as it may, Alkan was a French pianist and composer who lived from 1813 until1888, when he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
According to The Art of the Piano by David Dubal, Alkan "reached for his beloved Talmud, which was resting on top of a massive bookcase, [and] the structure toppled over, crushing the emaciated musician to death at 75."

But, if we're to believe the program notes accompanying Ronald Smith's performance of Alkan's Piano Sonata, Op. 33 on EMI Classics, the toppling bookcase story is pure myth. Alkan died of natural causes.

Some accounts have it that Alkan was a highly religious recluse. Others that, when he disappeared from social life and public performance for years at a stretch, supposedly immersing himself in Talmudic and Biblical studies, he was actually having affairs with some of his piano pupils.

In any case, for a guy who entered the Paris Conservatory at the ripe old age of six and who, a bit later, spent much of his time translating the New Testament into French from the Peshitta or Syriac version, Alkan obviously had quite a sense of humor.

But he had a serious side as well, and he wrote at least one incredible, monumental composition which I think deserves to be on every classical collector's CD shelves: The Concerto for Solo Piano. The first movement alone is just under a half-hour long. And the composition's unusual name is well deserved. It is so powerful I sometimes forget no orchestra is involved. Here's the first half of the first movement, performed by the Canadian-American pianist, Marc-André Hamelin (or Hamelin) on the Music & Arts label. [16:32]

MUSIC (15:00): Alkan: Concerto for Solo Piano : Allegro assai [Music & Arts CD-724] Down and out at 30:32. [30:32]

FLAXMAN (2:04): Oh, I hate to cut in on this. It makes me think of the professor I had for Music Appreciation 101 at the University of Michigan many years ago. In those days you had LP records, not compact discs, and he used to play excerpts all the time. But, unfortunately, he was incapable of picking the needle straight up off the record. Each time he tried, he did it with a sliding motion which sent shivers up and down all of our backs simultaneously. Naturally, his continual mistreatment of the records semester after semester added pops and scratches to the LPs each year. By the time I had his course, it was almost impossible to hear the music through the scratches - which is probably why I was so quick to buy a compact disc recorder when they came out!

My professor encouraged us to listen to the whole work on our own time, and I encourage you to do the same and purchase the recording when any of the excerpts you hear on this program appeal to you. But I promise to cut into these CDs as painlessly - and as rarely - as possible.

The sound on this CD of Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano is excellent, but there is one very annoying problem. In the last movement one repeated note results in a vibration which sounds like... like the complaints of a constipated cat. How did they let that slip by? Listen for it especially starting at 8 minutes, 15 seconds into the third movement when it repeats every second for 6 beats in a row!

If the final movement sounds a bit Arabic to you, well, it's supposed to. It is called Allegretto alla barbaresca , which means Allegretto, Barbary-Coast style. French archeologists at the time were making a great many discoveries in the Arab world, kindling French interest in the area and influencing French artists, writers and composers. Arab themes also appear in Saint-Saëns, Flaubert, Delacroix and Théophile Gautier.

Let's hear the complete second and third movements now of Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano, performed by pianist Marc-André Hamelin. [32:36]

MUSIC: (12:21 and 9:21, respectively): Alkan: Concerto for Solo Piano: Adagio and Allegretto alla barbaresca [Music & Arts CD-724] [54:27]

FLAXMAN (1:54): That was the Concerto for Solo Piano by Charles Alkan, performed by Marc-André Hamelin at the piano.

Long as it is, the Concerto for Solo Piano comprises just three of the 12 Etudes in Minor Keys, Op. 39 - Alkan's most ambitious work. Four other movements make up his Symphony for Solo Piano. Opus 39 also includes a long Overture in B Minor, and Le Festin d'Esope (Aesop's Feast), a 10-minute set of variations.

So, hey, Alkan is not exactly a household word. I'm not saying he deserves to be one. But I don't think he merits the almost total neglect he has received for more than a century. Unlike Liszt and the other Romantics, he didn't do a very good job of blowing his own horn while he was alive, since he wasn't a horn player. But then, neither was Liszt, and that didn't stop him! Since Alkan's death, pianists haven't exactly rushed to perform his highly difficult, strenuous compositions either.

But, starting in the 1960s, Alkan's work has enjoyed a slow come-back, championed by pianist Raymond Lewenthal in the U.S. until his death, and by Ronald Smith in England. Smith devoted a prominent place in his programs to the composer, made several recordings, and even wrote a biography: Alkan the Enigma. John Ogdon, Michael Ponti and others have hopped on the bandwagon (or, at least, the pianowagon). Now pianist François Bou has become a card-carrying member of the fan club with ADDA's Alkan series.

Well, if you don't buy an Alkan CD right now, you may miss the chance to be the first on your block to have one. If you lived on my block, you'd already be too late. [56:12]

MUSIC: Reprieve of opening music by Gounod. Down and under.

FLAXMAN (0:30): I hope you've enjoyed Alkan - and Gounod - as much as I have. If you would like a list of the recordings played on this program, or have questions or comments about the broadcast, by all means write or call me in care of this station. I'd love to hear from you. You can also send me an e-mail message from my website: This is your guide, Fred Flaxman, thanking you for joining me today on Compact Discoveries.

MUSIC (0:48}: Up, down and out at 58:00. [58:00]

30-Second Promo for Program Number 15
"Favorite Funeral Music"

MUSIC: Grieg: Notturno with Eva Knardahl, piano [BIS CD-105, track 4]

FLAXMAN: Music lovers can make the task of writing their wills far more interesting by naming the musical selections they would like played at their funeral. Some might choose requiems, but I would pick the piano pieces I never managed to play well while I was alive, played - by more gifted pianists - as I would have liked to play them. Join me, Fred Flaxman, for my "Favorite Funeral Music," next time on Compact Discoveries.

TAG: [Sunday at 7 p.m. on WXEL-FM.]

MUSIC: fade out at 30 seconds

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