Unriddling Alkan
from a talk given to the Alkan Society, 25th February 2003 on 'Alkan and his Jewish Roots'

The remarkable piano virtuoso and composer, Charles-Valentin Morhange, known as Alkan, is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of music. Friend, and regarded in his time as the equal, of Chopin and Liszt, he withdrew from the public gaze on more than one occasion in his career, giving rise to legends of his eccentricity and misanthropy which culminated in the famous legend, alas disproven, that he died crushed beneath a toppling book-case whilst reaching for a volume of the Talmud.

......What in practical terms did Judaism mean to Alkan?

We have some suggestive evidence of Alkan as a participant in Jewish communal celebrations; the fact that he apparently took care to prepare his own food may suggest that he kept Jewish dietary laws. Certainly the Paris Consistoire (the central Jewish authority) took note of him as a distinguished co-religionist and had dealings with him on some notable occasions. In 1844 he was a member of the panel which assessed the skills of the proposed new hazan, Samuel Naumbourg, who proved to be an excellent choice. Circumstantial evidence that Alkan was at least an occasional attendee at the synagogue comes from the Consistoire's invitation to him on this occasion, suggesting that he join the congregation for Shavuos (Pentecost) in order to hear Naumbourg in action. Later Naumbourg would ask Alkan to contribute to his three-volume compendium of Jewish musical liturgy, (published between 1850 and 1857) for which Alkan composed two short and rather anodyne choral works. During the late 1850s Alkan sat briefly on a committee considering revision of the musical liturgy.

Most notable was the affair of organist at the main Paris synagogue, the Consistorial Temple. In 1851/52 the Temple was rebuilt, to include, for the first time, a fixed organ. With this in mind the Consistoire set about recruiting its first official organist in 1851. The name of Alkan was proposed and unanimously endorsed by the committee concerned, which included Halévy, who around this time became himself a member of the Consistoire board. Alkan accepted, and then within a few days resigned, citing at length, in a letter which has sadly been lost, artistic considerations. Halévy and the Consistoire President, who were deputed to talk Alkan round, failed in their task.

This incident has often been used as an example of Alkan's eccentricity and  reclusiveness, and indeed there are many other events in his life - including his legendary death from a falling bookcase whilst reaching for a volume of his beloved Talmud - which contribute to this image. Gérard Ganvert, who has prepared the most extensive consideration to date of Alkan as a Jew, concludes that the `position of Alkan becomes less enigmatic […] given that his misanthropic character can explain [his] changes of mind and missed opportunities […]'.

However I venture to state that a further inquiry into the nature of Alkan as a Jew may give some additional clues to the many riddles which are attached to his career, and may enable us to substitute perhaps `eccentric', which he undoubtedly was, for the too-often applied epithet `misanthropic', which I think considerably overstates the case. Alkan did not after all live like a hermit, although he may understandably have taken the trouble to protect himself from unwelcome callers (as in the well-known story related by Professor Niecks, who asked Alkan's concierge when the great man was likely to be in, to which the well-trained concierge replied `Never'). He had his pupils, he visited the Erard piano showrooms where a studio was reserved for him and in the 1870s began his series there of `Petits Concerts' of classical music.

For example, consider Alkan's first mysterious withdrawal from the public in the years 1838-1844, that is the period of the birth and early childhood of his son Delaborde. Whilst his associates and contemporaries such as Liszt, Chopin and Berlioz had no problem vaunting their romantic affairs in public, such an attitude would have been quite contrary to Jewish family traditions - and we know the Alkan family was close -  and hence perhaps to Alkan's own sentiments. (The identity of Delaborde's mother remains uncertain, although Alkan's great-nephew, Cyril Ray, boldly advanced George Sand as a candidate). We may note that Alkan's return to the public eye came about at around the same time as he took on Delaborde officially as a pupil at the age of 5, thus maybe subconsciously to Alkan `normalising' and ratifying their relationship through the medium which was to him (and to Delaborde after him) supremely important. Not, however, that Alkan was in any way a prude - Chopin writes to his family in 1847

`This evening instead of getting all dressed up […] I went with Alkan to the Vaudeville to see Arnal […] As usual, Arnal is very funny. […]He tells the audience how he was desperate to pee in a train but couldn't get to a toilet before they stopped at Orléans. There wasn't a single vulgar word in what he said, but everyone understood and split their sides laughing'.

Alkan's background and beliefs will also have coloured his relationship with the Consistoire. Until the seventeenth century Jewish belief, in whatever country, was always more or less identical; one God, one fixed and immutable set of laws given by God to Moses (which might however be subject to various interpretations by the Rabbis), a history set out in the Old Testament, a Messiah who was awaited. This uniformity, or I might say somnolence, was profoundly shaken, throughout European Jewry, firstly by the astonishing career of the false Messiah Sabbatai Zvi, and then again by the new ways of thinking encouraged by increasing contact with the Gentile world consequent on the Enlightenment and the opening of Europe's ghettos by the Napoleon's conquering armies.

Some Jews came to believe that the way forward was by baptism - either because, like Felix Mendelssohn's father Abraham, they felt that the beliefs and customs of the Jews had become irrelevant and that Christianity was an appropriate social norm, or for more venal reasons like the poet Heinrich Heine who mockingly described it as a `meal ticket' to European society. Others sought to reform the religion to bring it up to date; amongst the leaders in these ideas were the Berlin magnate Judah Herz Beer, father of the composer Meyerbeer, and Fromental Halévy's father Élie, who as editor of the Paris Jewish newspaper `L'israélite français' in the years 1817-18 adopted the masthead `Tiens au pays et consérve ta foi' (`cleave to your country and keep your faith'). The sons of both of these carried forward the ideals of their fathers.

These new ideas were also affected, for French Jews, by dramatic demographic changes. As Paris grew, and the numbers and proportion of French Jewry in Paris increased dramatically, the centres of gravity for French  Jewry moved sharply away from Metz, and to a lesser extent Bordeaux, to the capital. The Paris Consistoires, led by members of the leading and wealthy families, set the pace for French Jewry as a whole. Moreover by the 1840s the balance on the National Consistoire had changed from the originally conceived three rabbis and two lay members, to one rabbi and nine or ten lay members. Inevitably then the forces of modernisation took the upper hand in the direction of the development of French Judaism, although radicalism was also eschewed, the lay leaders being by nature of their positions in society conservative in many respects.

The use of an organ was a crucial argument in the modernization process. The rabbis who had compiled the Talmud in the fourth and fifth centuries had, as I have mentioned, forbidden the use of musical instruments in the synagogue. Moreover, the playing of an instrument on the Sabbath constituted work, and that was forbidden by Mosaic Law. The modernizers were however more moved by issues of prestige and respect than divine law; how could the Gentile perception of the Jewish service ever improve on that expressed by, for example, Charles Burney, if the congregation were not compelled to be orderly and to sing in time and in tune? Organs and choirs would put the synagogue service on a footing of respectability comparable with the Church.

The nature of the close relationship between synagogue and state, which after 1830 even extended to rabbis' salaries being paid by the Government, meant that the worldly outlook would continue to prevail within French Jewish institutions. When Fromental Halévy became a member of the Consistoire in 1845, the newspaper `Archives Israélites' commented:

“It would no doubt be difficult to place among the administrators of the sect a man who is more honourable in character, more distinguished in talent, and more independent in his position”,

whilst noting blandly that

“The current members of our consistories [….] shine more through their position and the services they have rendered than through their religious studies and their knowledge of the sacred works”

Everything we know about Alkan suggests that this artificial secularised Judaism was not the sort in which he was interested. He is the man, after all, who had a thorough knowledge of both Hebrew and Aramaic (not to mention Greek); who expressed a wish to `set the entire Bible to music'; who left at his death many `volumes of works in Hebrew', as well as `thirty-eight volumes of Jewish works, finely bound'; who requested in his will that the inscription on his tomb should be in the old Jewish tradition no more than his name and dates; who left detailed legacies to Jewish charities and in the hope of establishing a prize for biblical cantatas at the Conservatoire. Not least he is the man who throughout the titles to his music scattered biblical epigraphs, references to prayers and psalms, and indeed inscribed part of his lost orchestral symphony, according to the witness of the critic and his former pupil Léon Kreutzer, with the Hebrew words  `Vayomer Elohim y'hi or - vayehi or' - `And the Lord said, let there be light - and there was light'. If Alkan was indeed, according to my conjecture, from a line of Jewish teachers, an heir to the traditions of Metz, then his attachment to the spirit and lore of Judaism would have been far from the temporising attitudes of a secularly-oriented Consistoire and the burgeoning bourgeois community it represented.

Alkan's individualistic view of Judaism is also suggested by his satirical comments, in a letter to Hiller, on Liszt taking holy orders in 1865.

`For my part, if I were to become a Rabbi, I should not accept the commands of the synagogue, but I would wear the habit in a quite independent spirit….'

Alkan's retreat from society in the last forty years of his life may therefore have been at least as much philosophical as misanthropic. Certainly the final years of the 1840s had been disastrous for his public career - his defeat for professorship at the Conservatoire by the inferior, but more politically astute,  Marmontel; the early death of his friend Chopin marking the end of a great era of the virtuoso; and the decline of Paris as a concert centre after the revolution of 1848. Let us remember that Liszt also chose after 1848 to quit the career of a social lion in Paris for that of a musical guru in the quiet court of Weimar.

The evidence is that Alkan got the message of his era; he did not withdraw in order to spite the world, but (in his mind at least) to enrich it, not only with his continuing compositions, which continued to be published throughout the 1850s and 1860s, but with his biblical studies which, apart from his references to it in his correspondence, are now all lost to us. A single fragment perhaps remains; the piano piece `Super flumina Babylonis', op. 52, is preceded by a French translation of Psalm 137 of which it is a paraphrase. François Luguenot, of the French Société Alkan,  tells me that this translation does not accord with any known published version; the strong possibility is therefore that it is from the hand of the master.......

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