Being a Jewish Romantic: Charles-Valentin Alkan

1886 Portrait of Charles-Valentin Alkan (Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

To be Jewish meant to be proud and combative. Abraham audaciously demanded Justice from the “Judge of all the earth” (Bereshit 18:25). Jacob prevailed as he dared to “struggle with G-d and men” (Bereshit 32:29). And after Moses anointed us a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6), how could such chosenness not engender pride?

Moreover, Jews and non-Jews alike used to be in awe of our classical heroes. Joshua, Samson, and David were inspiring as valiant warriors and wise leaders. Indeed, Jewish wisdom has been the envy of the world since biblical times. The Tanakh tells of envoys from kings of all the peoples of earth coming “to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (I Kings 5:14). Even at our lowest and weakest, in exile, did rulers seek the guidance of Mordechai and Daniel, of Shmuel the Prince and Maimonides.

Throughout millennia and facing adversity, Jews proudly held on to their history, beliefs, and tradition. Such was Jewish pride that by the Rivers of Babylon we swore not to forget Jerusalem, and by the Rhine River holy congregations gave up their lives in fulfilment of that oath. But then came modernity.

The emancipated Jew of modernity suddenly felt inadequate and out of place. To be modern meant to eschew the past and rebel against tradition. G-d given particularity seemed out of place in a world suddenly intoxicated with the liberating promise of humanist universalism. The emancipating forces of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire in the late XVIII and early XIX centuries unleashed modernity upon an unassuming Judaism. A Jewry forced to develop at the margins of European society in the Ghetto and Shtetl inevitably seemed parochial, outdated, and unprepared to deal with the civilizational clash that awaited it. To this day some struggle to straddle the chasm of modernity and Jewish identity, while others strive to hold on to one to the exclusion of the other.

There is something hopelessly Romantic about those of us who seek to carve ourselves a place in modern culture while remaining true to our Judaism. We try to find the sublime in what society finds parochial and antiquated. We are even unable to appeal to modern man’s fascination with the “exotic”. Our exile and dispersion have made us too ubiquitous for that. And, what seems worse, our tilting at these cultural windmills has an isolating effect. Who better epitomizes this struggle than the Jewish Romantics themselves? 

In the immediate aftermath of European emancipation, those Jews who endeavored to take part in the world of European culture at the height of the Romantic Era couldn’t help but find themselves astride two cultures. Even those who sought refuge in apostasy and assimilation felt the pull of their Jewish identity. Most Romantic among the German Romantics, the “poet of Judenschmerz”[1], Heinrich Heine was very vocally never at ease with his conversion to German Protestantism[2]. Even composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who, having been baptized as child, never lived a Jewish life seemed unwilling to fully give up on his Jewishness. Accordingly, he refused his father’s pleas to give up the “Mendelssohn” surname in favor of the non-Jewish “Bartholdy”. Mendelssohn’s father argued, in a July 1829 letter, that “a Christian Mendelssohn is as impossible as a Jewish Confucius“. Felix, rather than fully abandoning any Jewish identification, decided to embrace the paradox by both retaining the very Jewish “Mendelssohn”, and appending his father’s non-Jewish adopted “Bartholdy” name.

Others, while uncomfortable with the perceived backwardness of their heritage, still refused to abandon their Jewish identity. Rather than assuming the role of lonely refugees from the “uncivilized” world of their forebears in the sophisticated world of European modernity, they aimed at “bringing up” their communities and synagogues to the new cultural standards of the world that was heretofore closed to them. These Reformers eschewed the tradition of Jewish particularism in favor of a new universalist approach and parity with the non-Jewish world. Their new Judaism was philosophically in line with European Enlightenment and its ritual made to resemble the forms of the prevailing enlightened religion. They wanted a Judaism renewed, no longer mired in the past, but at the very forefront of Modernity. Such was the project of the likes of Hazzan and composer Salomon Sulzer in his modern reharmonizations of the traditional liturgy.

As synagogues became the image of modern respectability, their members aimed at a sensibly quiet and respectable Jewish practice. This formula allowed many to retain their Jewish identification while imbibing from the well of European Culture. This came with its challenges, not least the external forces of anti-Semitic prejudice and Christian exclusionism. Even with all the limitations and hurdles placed on Jewish advancement in the arts, not only did these Jewish modernizers immerse themselves in the general culture, they became instrumental in the shaping of it. Such was the case of Giacomo Meyerbeer, of whom Robert Schumann, at the height of the Romantic era, declared “rules supreme among our contemporary opera composers”.

Of course, there were also those who clung to the faith, culture, and traditions of their fathers and, in fear of the perceived corrupting influence of modernity, secluded themselves from non-Jewish society. But there was a third way. Some, in true Romantic fashion, were not satisfied with ignoring the call of modernity nor were they letting go of their traditional Judaism. Their falling in love with European Culture didn’t make them forget from whence they came.

We often hear of the struggles of Mendelssohn and Heine with the Judaism they left behind[3], or the quiet fading Judaism of Meyerbeer and Joseph Joachim. We seldom hear of the, in my view, most Romantic of the Jewish Romantics: Charles-Valentin Alkan, unapologetically Jewish and Modern.

1860 Portrait of Charles-Valentin Alkan (Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Alkan first came to prominence as a young piano virtuoso in the very active art circles of 1830s Paris. There, he quickly developed friendships with many of the defining figures of the Romantic era, such as writers George Sand and Victor Hugo, and, naturally, fellow piano virtuosos Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. Surrounded by the luminaries of his time, he earned the respect and praise of his contemporaries. Liszt attributed to Alkan the “finest technique of anyone[4] and Anton Rubinstein dedicated his Fifth Piano Concerto to him. The sophistication and technical complexity of his compositions both awed and terrified performers back then and continue to do so to this day. Their demanding nature has been credited for his unpopularity in the performing repertoire[5], especially in contrast to the ever-popular and ubiquitous compositions of his great friend Chopin. Nevertheless, his music has remained quietly influential throughout the generations[6].

In both his biography and works, Alkan’s defining trait seems to be unyielding independence. His highly idiosyncratic compositions, featuring unexpected harmonies and dissonance, seem almost out of place among his peers (and perhaps more in line with the musical developments of the XX century). Moreover, a singular and very idiosyncratic sensibility and sense of humor permeates Alkan’s music, which some found off putting. Robert Schumann, who wrote several critiques of Alkan’s works, considered him talented but wasn’t very fond of his compositions[7].

Similarly striking must have been his open Judaism. So well known was his Jewish practice and almost rabbinical erudition that an unusual myth quickly developed around the circumstances of his death in March 29th 1888 at the age of 74. Since he was found collapsed on the floor of his Paris apartment, the rumor circulated that his death was precipitated by a bookcase toppling over him as he reached for a volume of the Talmud.

The grandson of Talmud printer and likely Melamed (a teacher of Jewish religious subjects), Marix Morhange[8], Alkan grew up in an observant Jewish household, and is reported to have retained Jewish observances throughout his life[9]. Not to speak of having reportedly amassed an extensive library of over 75 Jewish texts. His mastery of Hebrew was well known, having translated the entire Tanakh to French. And he wasn’t afraid of allowing Jewish inspiration to flow into his “secular music” work. He is credited as the first composer to introduce traditional Jewish themes and liturgical melodies in European Art music with the publication of his Op. 31 set of Préludes, which includes “Ancienne Mélodie de la Synagogue” (Old Synagogue Melody). Also, melodies inspired by the haftarah cantillations are found in his Cello Sonata Op. 47.

Even though Alkan is primarily known as a piano composer[10], his vocal music works are remarkable. Not least because of their Jewishness. He had a particular predilection for settings of Jewish liturgical Hebrew texts with music inspired by traditional (Ashkenazi) synagogue melodies. His settings of Etz Hayim Hi[11] and Psalm 150 are particularly beautiful.

We also know that Alkan’s familiarity and involvement with Jewish liturgy went beyond mere inspiration. His professional advice was sought after by the Paris Consistory (the city’s traditional Jewish community) in evaluating the candidacy of Samuel Naumbourg as hazzan for Paris’ main synagogue. Everything seems to indicate that he was as passionate about traditional Judaism as he was about music, and he saw no point in keeping those worlds separate. He even expressed the desire of setting the entire Bible to music. Even though such an ambitious project never materialized, he did produce many works with Hebrew Biblical themes, including a, now lost, Orchestral Symphony whose introductory adagio was headed “by Hebrew characters in red ink … no less than the verse from Genesis: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light[12].

For me, Charles-Valentin Alkan is the ultimate Romantic. He lived in a unique world of his own, inhabiting the artistic Avant-Garde of his age, writing and performing music that may even be considered too forward-looking for his peers, yet with a personal life deeply rooted in thousands-year old tradition. Alkan didn’t seem to see a contradiction, his enamorment with Judaism spilled over into his art in a very Romantic way. He found a perfect synthesis that didn’t require him to compromise on his Jewish identity. While Chopin set his music to the rhythms of Polish folk dances, Alkan’s evoked the cantillations of the Hazzan in the synagogue. While Berlioz infused renewed patriotic fervor into the Marseillaise, Alkan gave a new Jewish musical voice to King David’s Psalms.

Charles-Valentin Alkan’s answer to the question of Judaism and Modernity is very compelling: dare to be a Jewish Romantic and, like the Psalmist, “Shiru leHashem Shir Hadash” – “Sing to Hashem a New Song”[13].


[1] Judenschmerz translates to “Jewish pain” or “Jew’s sorrow” and is a term used to denote the struggles of Jewish people with their identity in the face of antisemitism, prejudice, and contradictions inherent to adapting to the prevailing culture.

[2] Heine famously referred to his conversion in June of 1825 as his “ticket of admission into European culture”. He seems to have never been quite at ease with his baptism, as only a few months later, in a January 9th, 1826 letter to Moses Moser, he expresses regret: “I just converted to Christianity and already they are angry at me for being a Jew? …Now I am hated by both Christians and Jews. I am very sorry that I converted to Christianity, and I have not felt better since. Quite the opposite actually, since I seem to be surrounded by bad luck.”

[3] In Mendelssohn’s case, usually as a cautionary tale about the dangers of assimilation.

[4] As quoted by “Charles-Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music”, by William Alexander Eddie, Routledge, 2017, p. 5.

[5] In a 1913 review, Theodor Bolte, writes that “Alkan’s masterpieces: the Concerto pour piano seul and the Symphony for piano, both part of the Études op 39, a work with a modest title. These two compositions are the most difficult and the most beautiful he ever created. The three-movement piano concerto, because of its immense difficulties, is hardly ever enjoyed. After an hour and a quarter of reading through its 120 pages, one is left speechless. This mass of tones is overwhelming…” [as quoted by “Charles-Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music”, by William Alexander Eddie, Routledge, 2017, pp. 192-193]

[6] César Franck dedicated his Grand Pièce Symphonique Op. 17 for organ to Alkan, and in the early XX century performers of the stature of Ferruccio Busoni and Egon Petri performed his works. Alkan today enjoys somewhat of a revival with recordings by the likes of Marc-André Hamelin, Bruce Liu, and Mark Viner.

[7] “Charles-Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music”, by William Alexander Eddie, Routledge, 2017, p. 43 quotes his review of Alkan’s Op. 15: “a glance at the contents of this collection give us a fair idea of the taste and discipline of young France; it has a considerable flavour of Sue and Sand. One is startled by such false, and unnatural art”.

[8] This, and other biographical information taken from “Charles-Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music”, by William Alexander Eddie, Routledge, 2017.

[9] Some speculate that Alkan’s obsession with purchasing and preparing his own food reflected his Kashrut observance. See footnote 11 in McCallum, S., “Alkan: Enigma or Schizophrenia?”, Alkan Society Bulletin, 75 (April 2007), 2-10.

[10] He also wrote extensively for the pedal piano (pédalier), a piano with a bass register pedalboard that is played with the feet (similar to an organ). 

[11] The hymn intoned as Torah scrolls are returned to the ark during Ashkenazi Shabbat services. The text borrows verses from Mishlei 3:18, Mishlei 3:17, and Eicha 5:21.

[12] Direct quote from the first-hand testimony of music critic Léon Kreutzer who was shown the original manuscript by the composer. As it appears in “Charles-Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music”, by William Alexander Eddie, Routledge, 2017, p. 170.

[13] Yeshayahu 42:10 and opening verse of Psalms 96, 98, and others.

About the Author
Michael Gandelman, MSc is a researcher and Network Architect at NVIDIA. Formerly a researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, his work centers on networking for Supercomputers and Data Centers. Past work also includes involvement in physics research on topics of particle physics, plasma, and semiconductors. Michael is a regular speaker on topics of Jewish History, Halacha, Technology, and Science, and a lecturer at the CYS College of Jewish Studies.
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