Solving the riddle of Alkan's Grande Sonate Op. 33 'Les quatre âges': a performance guide and programmatic overview

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Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Grande Sonate Op. 33 ‘Les quatre âges’ is a unique four-movement work for piano solo that programmatically represents a man’s life through four decades, passing from age 20

Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Grande Sonate Op. 33 ‘Les quatre âges’ is a unique four-movement work for piano solo that programmatically represents a man’s life through four decades, passing from age 20 to 50, with each movement being progressively slower than the previous. Published in 1847, it was destined for obscurity until it was rediscovered and premiered in 1973 by English pianist Ronald Smith. Its absence from the public’s reach can be attributed to multiple reasons including the reclusive nature of the composer during the time of composition and the societal issues surrounding the French Revolution of 1848.

Much of Alkan’s music has a reputation for being nearly unplayable because of its complexity and the extremely high level of technical facility a pianist must possess in order to perform it convincingly. Aside from its performance length of nearly an hour, there are many technical issues that prevent Alkan’s Grande Sonate from being performed more frequently. This paper is an exploration of some of these performance and technical issues for consideration by pianists interested in solving the riddle of performing Alkan’s Grande Sonate.

The findings explored are based in part on the author’s experience in performing the complete Grande Sonate in recital, as well as on extant research into Alkan’s life and the interpretation and performance of his works. The paper concludes with an appendix and link to the author’s live performance of the work, another appendix renotating the fugato from Quasi-Faust, and a third appendix providing extensive fingering and voice redistribution for Les enfans [sic] from 40 ans.