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ClassicsOnline Home » ALAIN: Organ Works, Vol. 2
Jehan Alain has been
called the Grigny of the twentieth century. Fate granted very little time to an
artist who died prematurely at the very beginning of the Second World War at
the age of twenty-nine, but what richness there is, what maturity in a body of
work that includes some 120 compositions written between 1929 and 1939.
Jehan Alain was not
only an organ composer, as his vocal works, chamber music and piano
compositions show , but it remains true that he dedicated to this instrument
the most essential elements of his genius. This is not surprising when we
remember the origins of the composer and the context in which he came to music.
Like Debussy, Alain
was born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 3rd February 1911, into the family of
the organist and composer Albert Alain. Equally enthusiastic as an
organ-builder, Albert AI1iin had built in the family living-room an instrument
that must have influenced the musical taste of his eldest son, as did the long
hours he spent by the side of his father at the organ of the Church of Saint-Germain
or at the piano of his maternal grandmother, Alice Alberty, an excellent
amateur musician who had once studied with a pupil of Chopin. Having quickly
understood his son's inclination to music, Albert Alain provided him with the
first foundation of the art, before making him take piano lessons with Auguste
Pierson, organist of Saint- Louis at Versailles.
Time confirmed JehanAlain'
s talents and soon took him to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied harmony
with Andre Bloch, fugue with Georges Caussade, composition with Roger-Ducasse
and Paul Dukas and organ and improvisation with Marcel Dupre. The length of his
course of study, crowned in 1939 by the award of a first prize for organ and
improvisation, can be explained by the various events that complicated his
existence at this time, trouble with his health often associated with pneumonia
contracted in 1933, military service in 1933 and 1934, the shock of the death
of his sister Odile in 1937 and his marriage with Madeleine Payan in 1935. This
last happy event made it necessary for him to give a great deal of time to his duties as organist at
the Church of Saint-Nicolas de Maisons-Lafitte and at the Rue
Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth synagogue in order to meet his household expenses.
His studies barely
completed, Alain found himself at war as a soldier in the Eighth Motorised
Armoured Division" A troubled time, suspended over the unplumbed depths of
democracy and of war Luckily the smile of good old Bach, the tears of obstinate
Beethoven, the sighs and cries of some others form a solid base onto which we
hang on the dark ladder of circumstances", he noted in his diary The
dullness of the phoney war was soon dispelled by the German offensive of May
1940 Jehan Alain took part in the struggle, displaying exceptional bravery and
confidence, but neither faith nor music could help him. He was killed by enemy
fire on 20thMay 1940. "1 see death below from the height of this fair
age" was the verse of Jean Cocteau that Alain had written several years
before in his diary. It now took on a strangely premonitory character.
"Life leaped in
him", said Bernard Gavory of Jehan Alain in the book he wrote about his
dead friend, but he went on at once to add "He is happy and sad, ascetic
and sensual", thus underlining all that was contradictory about him. Jehan
Alain's admiration for Jean Cocteau was in no way fortuitous Persuaded that
"irony, humour, these alone make life bearable", he concealed under a
lively and light- hearted exterior a being with a very rich inner life, moved
by great generosity of spirit.
In his busy life,
Jehan Alain found it necessary to seek refuge, from time to time, in the family
chalet at Argentieres in Haute-Savoie, to find again "the mountain that
imbues us, commands us, purifies us", or at the Abbey of Valloire in the
Somme, moments of recollection that doubtless helped to give full meaning to
the words that he wrote on the last page of his diary "I believe in Christ
and in God"
"In our time we
are tired of lofty discourse The public is not so stupid Do not insist on
musical evidence Avoid commonplaces Be brief' The desire for conciseness, for
concentration of musical discourse always guided Alain in his creative work,
where he wanted to introduce mobility, expression of the outpouring of life
"Doubtless one must distinguish between rhythmic and melodic pieces. here
dances, there dreams, remarked Bernard Gavoty, but meditation demands no less
of life than activity in this way an Adagio can be as rich as a Scherzo"
The three Danses, sketched
for piano from 1937, were adapted for the organ in 1939 and the composer was
working on an orchestral version at the time of his death. They represent the
height of Jehan Alain's achievement as a composer, marked throughout by wealth
and power of inspiration. The first movement Joies (Joys) is
characterized by nervous rhythms, with moments of tranquil recollection. The
central movement Deuils (Mourning) is in complete contrast, "to
honour the memory of a hero", Alain wrote as epigraph to a piece that is
sad and funereal in character from the outset of the first Adagio section.
The tension increases in the following Molto scherzando. An uncertain,
dramatic atmosphere dominates the first bars of Luttes (Struggles),
that, as the title suggests, leads to a climax of conflict in which intensity
of feeling dispels any tendency to mere outward show.
Intermezzowas written in 1934 in a
version for two pianos and bassoons, designed for the Paris Conservatoire
Composition Competition. The following year Alain transcribed it for the organ
under the title La Fileuse (The Spinner). Rhythmically inventive, this piece,
in its fluidity and diversity of colours, is among the most representative
organ works of the composer.
Jehan Alain was still
a student of Blochand Caussadewhen, in 1932, he composed his Variations sur
Lucis Creator. The rigour with which
these teachers guided the steps of the young composer is certainly reflected in
this score, but there is also present a recognisable musical identity. The
theme is presented majestically, giving rise to two variations, the first
supported by a left-hand part that is flowing and regular, a procedure of which
Alain was very fond, and the second a Thema fugatum, in which the
composer shows superb contrapuntal skill.
Among the first works
of Jehan Alain for organ is the Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent, written
in 1929. Around a C sharp and D sharp held throughout the whole piece, there is
an atmosphere of a transparency that reminds us of the composer's attachment to
the world of childhood. "Little children" , he wrote, "have such
a pure look, so movingly sincere that their blue eyes, in little faces without
expression, take on a terrifying intensity", a look that we seem to see
The title of Grave,
written in 1932, describes well enough the sombre mood of recollection in a
short meditation that reaches its climax in the central section, sustained by
great chords. Completed two years earlier, Lamento also is severe in
character, but different from the Grave in its length and greater
complexity of structure.
The Premiere Fantaisie,
a musical commentary on a verse of Omar Khayyam is among the finest of
Alain's compositions of 1932 and the meaning of the work, which moves forward
energetically and with rhythmic freedom to its slow conclusion, is clarified by
the commentary provided ina letter of the composer, dated May 1934.
"Follow your presentiment that draws you towards things that are strong,
beautiful; do not seek to understand the mysteries of faith and of nature,
wonder without dissecting. Above all, I would not wish to exclude the feeling,
so violent and so intense, of thanks to the Creator, to the source of beautiful
things. In the writing of Omar one is clearly not forced to see this.
In writing a
dedication to his teacher, Georges Caussade, on the manuscript of the Prelude
et Fugue of 1935, Jehan Alain paid tribute to one of the teachers who had
been most important in his training as a composer. Solidity of structure is
certainly one of the dominant characteristics of this work, but this does not
exclude, however, freedom of expression, as witnessed by the Prelude marked
joyeusement et sans hate (joyfully and without haste) in which there are
several passages in free rhythm, cosi una cadenza, or the Fugue, with
the direction sans rigeur, in which is found the traditional and the
With the Ballade dans
le mode phrygien (Ballade in the phrygian Mode) and the Choral phrygien,
the Choral dorien (Dorian Chorale) is the third of Jehan Alain's
organ compositions to make reference to the classification of Greek modes of
Maurice Emmanuel. Slower than the Choral phrygien, it is marked, like
this last, tres lit! (very smooth).
A late work by Jehan
Alain, the Aria was written in 1938, providing great freedom of musical
argument and colourful writing, behind which is a composer in love with life.
It was during a stay
in 1930 at the Abbey of Valloires that Jehan Alain wrote his Postlude pour I'office
des complies (Postlude for the Office of Compline). It bears the marks of
the mood of recollection and meditation that this place signified for him, but
equally it relies on Gregorian chant, the inspiration of a work that is
wonderful in the tenderness of its colouring and the subtlety of its structure.
(English version by
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ALAIN: Organ Works, Vol. 2