Movement 1: 20 ans – Très vite
Movement 2: 30 ans – Quasi-Faust
Movement 3: 40 ans – un ménage heureux
Movement 4: 50 ans – Prométhée enchaîné
Much has been said and written about the limitations of expression through music. Without adopting this rule or that, without trying to resolve any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I will simply say why I have given these four pieces such titles and why I have sometimes used terms which are simply never used by others.
It is not a question, here, of imitative music; even less so of music seeking its own justification, seeking to explain its particular effect or its validity, in a realm beyond the music itself. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and fourth an andante and a largo; but each one corresponds, to my mind, to a given moment in time, to a specific frame of mind, a particular state of the imagination. Why should I not portray it? We will always have music in some form and it can but enhance our ability to express ourselves; the performer, without relinquishing anything of his individual sentiment, is inspired by the composer’s own ideas: a name and an object which in the realm of the intellect form a perfect combination, seem, when taken in a material sense, to clash with one another. So, however ambitious this information may seem at first glance, I believe that I might be better understood and better interpreted by including it here than I would be without it.
Let me also call upon Beethoven in his authority. We know that, towards the end of his career, this great man was working on a systematic catalogue of his major works. In it, he aimed to record the plan, memory or inspiration which gave rise to each one.
The composition and publication of the Grande Sonate occurred at a crucial moment in the composer’s life. During the summer of 1848, when the Revolution was not yet over, Zimmerman, Alkan’s teacher, resigned from his position as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. It would seem natural enough that Charles-Valentin, his most brilliant and promising student, should succeed him; but in the troubled climate of the time, and as a result of some predictable intrigue, it was in fact a second-rate musician, Antoine Marmontel, who was to gain the post. This was a particularly bitter pill for Alkan to swallow; he was to fade gradually further into obscurity and renounce all public and official posts. The Revolution was also to harm any publicity which might have surrounded the publication of the Grande Sonate: although it was well heralded in the music magazines, it would appear that there was not one single review of the piece, nor one public performance thereafter. The British pianist Ronald Smith is fully justified in thinking that he brought the piece to life when he gave it its first public performance in America in 1973!
Alkan was to try his hand at the piano sonata form on four occasions: the Grande Sonate, Op 33, the Symphony and Concerto for solo piano, Op 39, and the Sonatine, Op 61, all illustrate the discrepancies between an inherited Classical form and the trends of Romanticism. The astonishing complexity of the Grande Sonate was certainly disconcerting for his contemporaries and sufficiently justified his decision to give the programme a preface. Let us not forget three of its most markedly original features: as in the Symphony and Concerto, Op 39, and well before Mahler or Nielsen, the tonality evolves during the course of the work without returning to a ‘root tonality’; confining ourselves to the start of each movement, the keys are respectively D major, D sharp minor, G major, G sharp minor; if we focus purely on the endings, we find B major, F sharp major, G major and G sharp minor. The sequence of tempi was equally likely to be disconcerting for the listener: in place of the usual quick–slow–quick, Alkan puts four successively slower movements one after another. Finally, he invokes two of the great Romantic myths – Faust and Prometheus; the first, immortalized by Goethe, enjoyed a popularity kept alive by Berlioz, Gounod, Liszt and Schumann etc, while Prometheus takes us back to antiquity, to an era which Alkan, being passionate about the Classics, knew well and which he often referred to in his compositions.
The sonata opens with ‘20 ans’, a frenzied scherzo which frequently reminds one of Chopin’s Scherzo No 3. Straightaway, the 3/4 time is juxtaposed with accents on every other beat. The trio portrays the awakening of love, working its way gradually through various sections, from ‘timidly’ to ‘lovingly’ and on to ‘with joy’. The coda brings the movement to a whirling conclusion.
‘30 ans, Quasi-Faust’ is the heart of the sonata. It opens with the Faust theme which, in four bars, covers the whole keyboard and states the rhythmic formulae which will permeate the entire movement. There follows the Devil’s theme, in B major, which is the inversion of Faust’s theme. Marguerite’s theme, in G sharp minor and then major, presented at first in a mood of sweet sadness, passes through numerous climatic changes. The development and the return of the exposition lead on to four huge arpeggios which spread across every octave of the keyboard. Now comes a fugue, a horribly complicated eight-part fugue, which the eye alone can follow in the score; in order to make it legible, the composer himself establishes the use of different manuscript styles! The fugue continues until the entrance of ‘Le Seigneur’, and the movement concludes with a clear victory of Good over Evil, thus inspired by Goethe’s Faust Part 2, unlike the ending of Berlioz’s opera-oratorio where the composer boldly damns his hero.
‘40 ans, un ménage heureux’ presents a picture of unspoken Romance, interrupted on two occasions by a charming three-voice digression entitled ‘les enfants’; this latter section exhibits a use of thirds, sixths, fifths which is very untypical of Alkan who, unlike Chopin, usually shows little interest in anything other than octaves and chords. With the return of the opening section, the theme, treated in canon, becomes even more animated. The clock striking ten is the signal for prayer.
‘50 ans, Prométhée enchaîné’ draws us to the abyss. As an epigraph, Alkan cites several verses of the Aesychlus tragedy:
No, you could never bear my suffering! If only destiny would let me die! To die … would release me from my torments! Would that Jupiter had not lost his power. I will live whatever he might do … See if I deserve to suffer such torments! [lines 750–754, 1051, 1091 (the end of the play)]
After the victory in ‘Quasi-Faust’ and the joy of the happy household – something which the composer would always be denied – ‘50 ans’ ends with an acknowledgement of failure, in a visionary piece written without hint of pomposity or excess. Thinking about the composer’s destiny, the piece is also a premonition.
from notes by François Luguenot © 1995
English: Ansy Boothroyd