The Women Behind The Parrot

Trent Portigal
8 min readJul 13, 2019
“Have you lunched, Jaco?”, lyrics from Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot.

The first time I came across the name Charles Valentin Alkan was in the proceedings of a 2002 conference, The Literary Mad, New Explorations (Fous littéraires, nouveaux chantiers):

Michel Braudeau: For a mad musician, there is a composer named Alkan. Not mad, but really in the end…author of the symphony for a parrot.

Christian Laucou: Yes, for the burial of a parrot. He was lightly monomaniacal, as he had a number of parrots. Though besides that, he was one of the virtuoso composers one could compare a little bit to Liszt, in the virtuosity of execution. It’s very beautiful, what he wrote.

Michel Braudeau: However, he nonetheless had the idea of dying crushed by his bookshelves.

Christian Laucou: His funeral march for the burial of a parrot is extremely amusing and enjoyable to listen to: it is simply the words that are off-the-wall in relation to the music.

Alkan was a Nineteenth Century French composer and pianist. The exchange above focuses on the eccentricities of his character and his creations. They were enough to make him notably odd, though perhaps no more than that. What is implied is that, while the composition in question should have been included in the mainstream as a comic or satirical take on a funeral march, it was left to the side as a largely forgotten curiosity.

The composer was himself largely forgotten, before being rediscovered in the early Twentieth Century in Britain and the United States. It took a while longer for his native France to recognize him. This lapse can to a certain extent be explained by his eccentricities, combined with an unfortunately timed revolution and his Jewishness. There are hints, however, that he did have a sizable following in his lifetime, just one without the public influence to extend their appreciation into posterity. It was made up of relatively well-to-do Parisian women.

Born in 1813, Alkan was accepted at the Paris Conservatory when he was six. He placed first in his class in solfège, piano, harmony and, somewhat later, organ. His first public performance, as a violinist, was at seven and a half. At twelve, he had his first performance as a pianist and composer. He came from a musical family and was considered a child prodigy. Like many others in a similar situation, his father gave him the initial push to excel.

The next step in Alkan’s progression was being introduced, at thirteen, to the world of salons. Ronald Smith, one of the central figures who pulled Alkan’s work and history from the abyss, describes “the most important of these soirées” in Alkan: The Man, The Music:

[Alkan] noticed the presence of a handsome stranger some two years his senior. Later, this striking youth was also invited to the piano. Imagine Alkan’s feelings when, on the very scene of his own personal triumphs, he was now made to witness a display of virtuosity such as he had never even imagined and one which relegated him to second place! Tears of vexation, followed by a sleepless night, were merely the outward manifestations of this first encounter with Liszt.

Smith mentions that this series of soirées was given by the Princess of the Moskova. The focus of the story, though, is the drive of his Conservatory teachers to show off his talents and his encounter with a musician at his level. Much later, “the ever-generous Liszt declared that Alkan had the greatest technique he had ever known.”

The influence of women like the Princess is noted but not expanded upon. They were key in presenting musical talent from the narrow world of conservatories and the like to a broader, moneyed audience. They also provided a pool of students who could afford to pay for prestige teachers. The “tenderness of the reception he received” from the Princess suggests that Alkan was one of the performers who started benefiting from this state of affairs early in his career.

Alkan then moved to the Square d’Orléans, a hive of artists of various stripes in Paris, and continued to perform solo and in small ensembles, compose and teach. He became the neighbour and friend of Frédéric Chopin and the famed woman of letters, George Sand. His career progressed as one might expect until, after a concert given on March 3, 1838 that included Chopin, he suddenly disappeared from the musical scene.

Arguably, this retreat was connected to the birth a couple of months later of Elie Miriam Delaborde, very likely his son and a virtuoso pianist in his own right. Delaborde’s mother, Lina Eraîm Miriam, was “a lady of high social standing,” married and one of Alkan’s pupils.

Alkan kept himself busy composing new and innovative work and returned to the stage for two concerts in 1845. The music did not connect with the audience or critics. A year later, a long article was written about him, labelling him a “true artist”:

These latter having spent too much time on their work to spend any part of it on publicity and canvassing become a little disgusted with a public that does not come and seek them out. They continue, all the same, to perfect their own works but do nothing to promote them thus dedicating them to obscurity. Some time ago we told our readers of M. Reber who carries this need for obscurity almost to the lengths of a passion. Valentin Alkan is another of these misanthropes of the musical world.

The reaction to the concerts dissuaded Alkan from performing. He continued composing, ultimately publishing his Grand Sonata (op. 33) in 1847. It was “a cosmic event in the composer’s development and in the history of piano music” according to Raymond Lewenthal, another Twentieth Century pianist who contributed to rescuing Alkan from oblivion.

Part of Alkan’s motivation in putting out this work did not fit with the true artist label: he had his eye on becoming director of the piano program at the Paris Conservatory. Unfortunately, due to the turbulence of the revolution of 1848, much of the Parisian musical community, including Chopin, was in self-exile in London and there was little appetite to hire someone challenging and innovative for the Conservatory post. As a result, nobody had the chance to hear the sonata and a relatively ordinary pianist, Antoine François Marmontel, was appointed to lead the program.

The preference for the ordinary cut another opportunity short in 1851, as the organist for the Consistorial Temple, the main place of Jewish worship in Paris. Gérard Ganvert argues, in his essay “Alkan, French Musician of the Jewish Faith,” that the installation of an organ was new and part of the process of Jewish integration in French society.

The community held a jury competition for an organist, but then put aside the results to hire Alkan. He was, after all, the most renowned musician of the faith in Paris at the time. The difficulty was that his work and approach, while being indebted to J. S. Bach and other classical organists, were not compatible with the conformity underlying Jewish integration. He resigned two weeks after he was named. As a Jew, he was ineligible to become an organist in a Christian institution with a richer organ tradition.

The stamp of the true artist only appreciated by a select few stuck to Alkan. Marmontel contributed to it when he wrote, “Alkan has lived misanthropically; but all those musicians capable of appreciating him consider him a genius!” Marmontel’s opinion counted, as did Liszt’s noted above. Smith cites judgments of later musicians and composers as well: “Busoni, for instance, […] had no hesitation in placing him alongside Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms as one of the five greatest post-Beethoven writers for the piano.“

Alkan gave a single concert, accompanied by a small string ensemble, on May 5, 1849 and then did not perform professionally until 1873. His teaching and composing carried on, with a scattering of work released over the years. One of these was the 1859 Funeral March for a Dead Parrot. “Wealthy pupils, like the Princess Orloff, provided him with sufficient income for his modest tastes and left him enough time for creative work and for what his friend Hiller humorously called his ‘semitic studies’.”

Chopin died in 1849, deepening Alkan’s isolation but also, paradoxically enough, making it easier. Alkan was the obvious choice of teacher for many of Chopin’s students who wanted to continue their studies. What is less obvious is why Alkan’s pupils stuck with him through the decades of reclusion if their primary motivation was to study with a prestigious pianist. While he was not forgotten, he was at least partially eclipsed by younger and more active musicians such as César Franck and Gabriel Fauré.

The fact that Alkan was able to live in fashionable areas of Paris throughout this period and left a significant sum of 100,664 francs when he passed gives an indication that, while he was rejected by the Conservatory and did not fit in as a Temple organist, his talents were appreciated by his students. Only, these students were not destined to become professional pianists, music critics and the like.

Alkan’s comments regarding a Clara Schumann concert in an 1862 letter to Ferdinand Hiller are telling:

I hope you won’t be affronted by my judgment of the excellent Madame Schumann — it’s really more a matter of personal temperament. For my taste women never play really well. Either they sound like women or they try and sound like men.

Alkan’s students were for the most part women. He may have been an excellent teacher but it is difficult to imagine him encouraging them to aspire to more than amateur recitals. At the same time, it was likely not befitting princesses to entertain a public audience.

In 1873, Alkan started playing a series of concerts to a limited audience, a series that continued officially until 1877 but in one form or another lasted until his death in 1888. Critics were effusive about the first concert, except for “two unfortunate lapses in memory.” Alkan played everything by heart and either his memory was not quite as sharp as it once was or, after such a long absence from the stage, he was not entirely sure of himself. In order to resolve the issues, he put on informal recitals every Monday and Thursday afternoon in a room reserved for him at the Erard House, a piano manufacturer’s practice and concert space.

The music scholar Frederick Niecks attended some of these recitals and observed that “about a dozen ladies and myself formed the audience.” The piano virtuoso Isidore Philipp spoke about later concerts as “elegant gatherings frequented by perfumed ladies in rustling skirts.” The impression given is of women as background colour to the select few capable of appreciating Alkan’s work, rather than as a legitimate part of the audience.

Alkan was perhaps a misunderstood genius and, because of the gap between his passing and his rediscovery, some of his music is likely forever lost. It is misleading, however, to simply tell the story of an unappreciated and solitary figure. He was certainly a recluse for much of his life and his compositions are notoriously difficult to play, pushing the boundaries of his instrument. At the same time, he was accompanied from the beginning of his professional career to his final concerts by a supportive following that went well beyond the select few. Both, I would argue, were necessary to compose such wonderful pieces of music as the Funeral March for a Dead Parrot.

Another generation was necessary for the situation regarding women to change. Smith describes Alkan’s presumed son’s ménagerie:

Delaborde’s steady stream of pupils seemed undeterred, however, by the presence of two mighty apes who roamed his studio; and when the war of 1870 drove him to giving concerts in London he was accompanied by his retinue of 121 parrots and cockatoos.

Like father, like son, parrots played an important role in Delaborde’s life. Unlike his father, one of Delaborde’s students was the inimitable Olga Samaroff, an American prodigy with a far-reaching legacy. One of her students was the above-mentioned Raymond Lewenthal, who helped save Alkan’s music from obscurity. In a roundabout way, moving beyond Alkan’s own biases against female musicians was a significant step in ensuring that his music is valued today.

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Trent Portigal

Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).