Alkan wrote five volumes of Chants: Opp 38 (two books), 65, 67 and 70. He took as his inspiration and model Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, not merely sharing their harmonic language and length, but following the key sequence of Mendelssohn’s first book, Op 19 (E major, A minor, A major, A major, F sharp minor and G minor), even ending with a barcarolle. Mendelssohn’s ‘songs’ appeared in eight collections composed between 1830 and 1845; Alkan’s were composed between 1857 and the early 1870s.
No 1 of the Op 65 set has no title beyond its tempo marking, Vivante, rippling triplets accompanying its graceful melody for all but five bars. No 2, Esprits follets(‘Goblins’), is a near-relation of Mendelssohn’s Spinnerlied, Op 67 No 4, a prestissimo fairy-light scherzo. No 3, Canon: Assez vivement, is a haunting lullaby and simultaneously a beautifully harmonized and ingenious strict canon at the octave—the melody is played by the right hand followed a bar later, an octave lower, by the left hand. No 4, Tempo giusto, begins and ends as a polonaise, its middle section a succession of unexpected modulations and rhythms rising to a climax that threatens to take us back to the supercharged world of the Concerto. No 5 is the oddly named Horace et Lydie. Ronald Smith relates in Alkan: The Music (Kahn & Averill, 1987) that Dr John White identified the structure of the piece as following meticulously the scheme of one of Horace’s Odes in which ‘the second speaker [Lydie] in the dialogue must reply to the first [Horace] in the same number of verses and on the same or similar subject and also, if possible, “cap” what the first speaker has said’. The last of the set, Barcarolle, is, relatively, one of Alkan’s best-known works and, according to Smith: ‘A fascinating pre-echo of the “Twenties”. With its flattened sevenths and false relations it might well be described as the piece of Mendelssohn that Gershwin forgot to write!’
Taken as a whole, one must wonder why this third book of Alkan’s Chants is so completely unknown. Any one of its six pieces would, at the very least, provide a pleasing encore. Perhaps (and not for the first time) the advocacy of Mr Hamelin will rescue these unjustly forgotten gems and put them where they belong—restored, polished and glittering in the shop window for everyone to see.