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Homage to Mendelssohn: Alkan’s Barcarolle for solo piano

A hugely talented Parisian musician, Charles-Valentin Alkan was an integral part of the music circles of his day. He wrote his Barcarolle in G minor, Op. 65, No. 6 as a homage to Mendelssohn’s Op. 19, No. 6: Andante sostenuto in G minor (“Venezianisches Gondellied” [Venetian Boat Song]), one of the most beloved pieces from the Songs Without Words.

Charles-Valentin Alkan, c. 1850.

Charles-Valentin Alkan was friendly with Chopin and Liszt in his youth and his striking, highly personal music is at least as virtuosic and demanding as theirs. After achieving early acclaim as a pianist with concerts in England alongside Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Baptist Cramer, he sought seclusion, becoming a reclusive but much respected member of the Parisian scene. For years Alkan studied, taught and composed almost in isolation with long spells away from the public eye. His circle included Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo as well as composers Camille Saint-Saëns, and Auguste Franchomme; the latter also played Alkan’s difficult and handsomely crafted violoncello sonata. Alkan spent much of his life away from the concert stage; exploring his Jewish roots, translating the Bible from the Hebrew and the Greek and bringing up and teaching his son, the virtuoso pianist and composer Élie-Miriam Delaborde. Because Alkan chose not to travel, his music was almost completely unknown in Germany, which may account for why after his death it became neglected. It is only in the last fifty years that the work of this giant of the piano has gradually become better appreciated.

Charles-Valentin Alkan, Barcarolle in G minor, Op. 65, No. 6

The Barcarolle in G minor is Alkan’s homage to the first of Mendelssohn’s three Venetian Gondola songs, deriving its key and character specifically from Op. 19, No. 6: Andante sostenuto in G minor (“Venezianisches Gondellied” [Venetian Boat Song]). The piece is part of Alkan’s five sets of Chants, all modelled carefully on the first set of the Songs Without Words. Alongside Chopin’s Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60, Gabriel Fauré’s much-loved Barcarolles (written throughout his career and representing many phases of Fauré’s development) and Tchaikovsky’s ‘June’ (accompanied by a lyrical poem by Aleksey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev), the present work by Alkan is one of the finest Barcarolles available to the pianist. This piece would be a fantastic addition to any performer’s recital repertoire. It presents the same technical features and subtle yearning as another Mendelssohn composition, the Album Leaf in E Minor, Op. 117. In the Alkan piece, the characteristic pattern on the left hand is reminiscent of the movement of the water. Chopin’s aforementioned Barcarolle, one of his latest works, displays some of the same challenges in a more demanding, larger-scale piece.


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