Mendelssohn's Major Musical Contemporaries
Charles-Valentin Alkan and Adolf von Henselt were two of the more popularly known of Mendelssohn's contemporaries.
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
￼He was a child prodigy who intimidated Liszt – but Alkan’s talent wasn’t recognised in his own lifetime
This French composer and pianist was hailed by Hans von Bülow as “the Berlioz of the piano”. He was said by Liszt to have had the greatest technique he had ever known and even Liszt himself was uncomfortable playing in front of Alkan. The music he wrote (almost all of it for the piano) is so difficult that only top-flight virtuosos attempt it.
It also demands great reserves of stamina. Take his 12 Etudes In All The Minor Keys (1857). These are not the miniature études of Chopin. Nos. 8-10, for example, form the Concerto For Solo Piano. The first étude alone lasts nearly half an hour.
Much of Alkan’s life is a mystery. Born Charles-Valentin Morhange in the Jewish quarter of Paris, he was a child prodigy. From the age of 12 he was simply known as ‘Alkan’ (his father’s first name).
But unlike his friend Liszt, worldly success eluded him and he became increasingly bitter and reclusive after being passed over as director of the Paris Conservatoire in favour of one of his pupils.
He gave few concerts in the last decades of his life and, with no one to champion his music, it soon fell into neglect. It is said that Alkan was crushed to death by a falling bookcase, though the legend that he was found clutching a copy of the Talmud is a romantic invention.
Recently, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in Alkan and a re-assessment of his music. For many, he is a genius who deserves to rank alongside Chopin and Liszt, for Alkan is as idiomatic, inventive and unique in his own way as are his more famous peers.
Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889)
He didn’t compose a huge amount and was a very nervous performer, but his teaching is his legacy. Henselt was one of the great pianists of the age. Wilhelm von Lenz, who knew him well, put him in the same category as Chopin and Liszt.
But there was one difference: Henselt was pathologically nervous. If he was playing a concerto, he would hide in the wings during the introduction and then dash onstage just before the piano’s entrance.
He would practise obsessively for 10 or more hours a day, often reading the Bible simultaneously.
Henselt wrote just one masterpiece, the Piano Concerto in F minor (1844). With its elements of Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Weber, it was one of the most performed works of its kind until Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 became more popular.
His two sets of Etudes, not unlike Chopin’s but less inspired, include the once-popular Si Oiseau J’étais. After the age of 41, he simply lost the urge to compose.
But Henselt had significant influence as a teacher. Much of his life was spent in Russia and in 1863 the Tsar appointed him Inspector-General of all the royally-endowed musical institutions throughout the Empire. He laid the foundation of the Russian school of piano playing.
Henselt’s small output (only 41 published works) is well-crafted, melodious, effective and, like Alkan’s, almost all for the piano. He had extraordinarily flexible hands and was able to play C-E-G-C-F in the left hand and B-E-A-C-E in the right.