FAKSM #25: Le Festin d'Esope

Okay, so it's not really a song, but the latest Fucking Amazing Kickass Song of the Moment is undoubtedly fucking amazing, fucking kickass, and fucking fucked up. I'd say it thus qualifies, despite the fact that it's an Étude, not a song. So, what the fuck am I talking about?

Back in the mid-1800s, Paris was a veritable smelting pot of Europe's musical ideas and was frankly full of astounding geniuses. Some of the best Romantic era composers lived there, including Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Bellini. Also, there was an actual Parisien living there, a nutcase called Charles-Valentin Alkan. Those of you familiar with Chopin and Liszt may now be nodding in agreement, while the rest will probably have been lost at Chopin and by Bellini wondering if I was listing a range of European sausages.

Like Chopin and Liszt, Alkan was a piano virtuoso. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the ripe old age of five years old. Despite being a genius pianist, noted by his teachers, his first public recital was on violin. Just, you know, because.

At the age of 14 Alkan started composing. Unlike Chopin, whose works have been pretty popular since he wrote them, and Liszt, who was so famous at the time he had a whole medical condition named after him due to young women fainting in the audience during his recitals, Alkan's self-imposed exile to translate the Bible from Hebrew to French and to get away from people shafted the popularity of his music well into the 20th Century, despite being acclaimed as one of the best (if not the best) pianists in history during his lifetime. Even Liszt was quoted saying that Alkan was more technically proficient than he, though Liszt's playing style was one more of utter abandon.

Alkan was, however, utterly ruthless. Acclaimed as a teacher, he wrote a huge number of Études which didn't simply stretch the pianist, like Chopin's Études or Liszt's Transcendentals, but utterly ripped their souls into shreds. These include Études for the left and right hand only that even pianists referred to as rather good by today's standards would weep at playing with both hands. Unlike most composers, Alkan also delineated the tempo exactly. If he wanted something playing at 140bpm, he would write 140bpm, not Vivace. And even then, apart from Alkan (and maybe his illegitimate son and Liszt), no one has really been able to play a great deal of Alkan's output at the intended speed. Even Marc-Andre Hamelin, probably the biggest exponent of Alkan's music today, frequently cuts out "impossible" bits and slows the tempo down considerably.

Alkan was also possessed of a rather British sense of humour, as found in his Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot, featuring three oboes, a bassoon and voices. This piece also shows why Alkan probably didn't write for anything other than piano for most of his life. Either that, or he just really hated bassoonists.

Anyway, the piece I want to introduce you to is, to me, the epitome of Alkan's technique, insanity, and trolling. It's so hard to play that I can't even link you one played by a human. No one since Alkan has managed it properly. So here it is, Le Festin d'Esope.

Some of the melodies are glorious, but where beginner pianists struggle with operating both hands independently, and where intermediate pianists struggle with hand swapping and playing notes in the middle of the what the other hand is doing, even expert pianists struggle to grow an extra two fingers on each hand.

So yes, the trolling of Alkan. Glorious, and still delightfully musical. Also, could swear there's a black metal riff in this piece, a good 120 years before Black Metal started. Go Alkan.


  1. Holy shit. I really quite enjoyed that. I can't argue its placement in the list of FAKSM.

    I was going to ask you why you wrote "No one since Alkan has managed it properly" after I found this, but after comparing, for example, the part in your video at 07:32 vs. in my link at 07:20... I found that I no longer had a question.

    Unless, you know, you were just kidding and it's completely possible to play that. In which case, let's all pretend I never wrote the last paragraph.

  2. Nope, not kidding at all. I've listened to every recording I can get my hands on and none of them manage to interpret that bit of the score right, though to be fair none of them even really try. They just sort of take the hemidemisemiquaver arpeggios and turn them into chords, which sort of ruins the entire point.

  3. I have to say, there is something to be said for the precise execution of this piece. The deadly accuracy makes it enjoyable. I have to say, though, Yeol Eum Son's interpretation of it kind of blew me away.

    My personal bias though--I am a huge Romantic-era buff and I enjoy flowy stuff :P