Week 212: “Prelude #1” by Charles-Valentin Alkan

Alkan was a piano superstar in Paris at the same time as his good friends Liszt and Chopin, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same lasting fame as his two contemporaries. It might be because a lot of his music is difficult to play, and some of it pretty much impossible to play unless you have forty fingers.

But every once in a while, Alkan would come down from his caffeine high and put together a piece of beautiful simplicity, such as this brief but expressive prelude.

This is the first of the 25 Preludes in his Op. 31 from 1844. Usually, composers would write 24 preludes in a set; one for each major and minor key. Alkan had to go one better and make 25. His set of preludes begins with this one (in C major), and ends with an equally beautiful one, also in C major. They make great bookends for a spring day.

One day I’ll make the time to listen to all 25 in one sitting, but for now I’m happy to start my day with a cup of tea and Prelude #1.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It really feels like the start of something. The way the left hand spends so much time on the same note in the first few bars gives it a sense of beginning.

2. One minute in, it jumps into a minor key and kicks up the volume a bit. It’s like a reminder not to fall asleep…after all, you’ve got 24 more preludes to get through.

3. It’s simple enough that the average living-room piano player could learn it.

Recommended listening activity:

Opening all the windows in your house first thing in the morning.

Buy it here.