Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Monday, April 1

The truth about Alkan

Synopsis

For many years, the BBC celebrated April Fools’ Day by trying to pull radio listeners’ legs with outrageously fabricated news stories. One year, for example, BBC TV aired footage of an Italian spaghetti farm where happy peasants harvested that year’s crop from bushes that the BBC production crew had draped with limp noodles for the filming.

On another April 1st, the BBC’s classical service featured a profile of an eccentrically reclusive 19th century French composer who concocted unplayable works in his apartment on a bizarre instrument that combined an organ pedal board with a grand piano. He was, the story claimed, as fantastic a performer as Liszt or Chopin, and supposedly was crushed to death by his own bookcase when he attempted to remove a heavy volume from its top shelf. Only in this case, the story was more or less true, and the composer, Charles-Valetin Alkan, was a very real person.

Alkan was born in Paris in 1813 and was buried there on today’s date in 1888. Only the bit about Alkan’s “death by bookcase” in the BBC profile is disputed by some historians. That story originated with Isidore Philipp, one of only four mourners who attended Alkan’s April 1st interment, and who claimed to have been present when the composer’s body was found in his apartment. Philipp was a highly respected and long-lived French composer and piano teacher who came to America in 1940 and died here in 1958. He seems a credible witness—so who to believe?

Music Played in Today's Program

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) Bombardo-Carillon Caroline Clemmow and Anthony Goldstone, pedal-piano Symposiun 1062

Additional Information

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