Jehan Alain (1911-1940) Organ Works Vol. 1
Eric Lebmn on the Cavaille-Coll Organ of the Church ofSaint-Antoine des Quinze- Vingts, Paris
Jehan Alain has beencalled the Grigny of the twentieth century. Fate granted very little time to anartist who died prematurely at the very beginning of the Second World War atthe age of twenty-nine, but what richness there is, what maturity in a body ofwork that includes some 120 compositions written between 1929 and 1939.
Jehan Alain was notonly an organ composer, as his vocal works, chamber music and pianocompositions show, but it remains true that he dedicated to this instrument themost essential elements of his genius. This is not surprising when we rememberthe origins of the composer and the context in which he came to music.
Like Debussy, Alainwas born at saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 3rd February 1911, into the family of theorganist and composer Albert Alain. Equally enthusiastic as an organ-builder,Albert Alain had built in the family living-room an instrument that must haveinfluenced the musical taste of his eldest son, as did the long hours he spentby the side of his father at the organ of the Church of saint-Germain or at thepiano of his maternal grandmother, Alice Alberty, an excellent amateur musicianwho had once studied with a pupil of Chopin. Having quickly understood hisson's inclination to music, Albert Alain provided him with the first foundationof the art, before making him take piano lessons with Auguste Pierson, organistof saint-Louis at Versailles.
Time confirmed Jehan Alain's talents and soon took him to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studiedharmony with Andre Bloch, fugue with Georges Caussade, composition with Roger-Ducasseand Paul Dukas and organ and improvisation with Marcel Dupre. The length of hiscourse of study ,crowned in 1939 by the award of a first prize for organ andimprovisation, can be explained by the various events that complicated hisexistence at this time, trouble with his health often associated with pneumoniacontracted in 1933, military service in 1933 and 1934, the shock of the deathof his sister Odile in 1937 and his marriage with Madeleine Payan in 1935. Thislast happy event made it necessary for him to give a great deal of time to hisduties as organist at the Church of Saint-Nicolas de Maisons-Lafitte and at the RueNotre-Dame-de-Nazareth synagogue in order to meet his household expenses.
His studies barelycompleted, Alain found himself at war as a soldier in the Eighth MotorisedArmoured Division: " A troubled time, suspended over the unplumbed depthsof democracy and of war. Luckily the smile of good old Bach, the tears ofobstinate Beethoven, the sighs and cries of some others form a solid base ontowhich we hang on the dark ladder of circumstances" , he noted in hisdiary. The dullness of the phoney war was soon dispelled by the Germanoffensive of May 1940. Jehan Alain took part in the struggle, displayingexceptional bravery and confidence, but neither faith nor music could help him.
He was killed by enemy fire on 20th May 1940. "I see death below, from theheight of this fair age" was the verse of Jean Cocteau that Alain hadwritten several years before in his diary. It now took on a strangelypremonitory character.
"Life leaped inhim", said Bernard Gavory of Jehan Alain in the book he wrote about hisdead friend, but he went on at once to add: "He is happy and sad, asceticand sensual", thus underlining all that was contradictory about him. JehanAlain's admiration for Jean Cocteau was in no way fortuitous. Persuaded that"irony, humour, these alone make life bearable", he concealed under alively and light- hearted exterior a being with a very rich inner life, movedby great generosity of spirit.
In his busy life,Jehan Alain found it necessary to seek refuge, from time to time, in the familychalet at Argentieres in Haute-Savoie, to find again "the mountain thatimbues us, commands us, purifies us", or at the Abbey of Valloire in theSomme, moments of recollection that doubtless helped to give full meaning tothe words that he wrote on the last page of his diary: "I believe inChrist and in God".
"In our time weare tired of lofty discourse. The public is not so stupid. Do not insist onmusical evidence. Avoid commonplaces. Be brier'. The desire for conciseness,for concentration of musical discourse always guided Alain in his creativework, where he wanted to introduce mobility , expression of the outpouring oflife. "Doubtless one must distinguish between rhythmic and melodic pieces:here dances, there dreams" remarked Bernard Gavoty, "but meditationdemands no less of life than activity: in this way an Adagio can be as rich asa Scherzo".
There was, too,expression of the outpouring of faith, witness one of the most perfect of jehanAlain's organ works, Litanies The words that he wrote as an epigraph onthis work, completed in 1937, tell more clearly than any commentary of the spiritthat inspired him "When the Christian soul no longer finds new words inits distress to implore the mercy of God, it repeats endlessly the sameinvocation with strong faith Reason has its limit Faith alone reaches on high"in the obsessive rhythm of this work is released, according to Alain, theirresistible gusting wind of prayer
Less ambitious, Petitepiece of 1932, over which Alain took particular care, ;s beautifullyconstructed With its motif in parallel sixths, repeated four times, theintroduction, Andante sans lenteur, leads to a Plus lent, inwhich the theme is stated over a flowing triplet accompaniment that continueswhile the introductory motif returns The work ends with a short canon.
Two years later came Lejardin suspendu, which Jehan Alain explained as "the artist's ideal,always pursued and elusive, a refuge that ;s inaccessible and inviolable"Here there is writing of admirable tenderness and delicacy, "all indelicate, veiled timbres", perhaps inspired by the serenity of themountainous countryside.
Visiting the ColonialExhibition of 1932 brought Jehan Alain contact with different forms of musicalexoticism which were not without influence on his work North African folk-loreinspired his second Fantaisie, written in 1936 Two slow, dreaming sect;onsframe here the central Presto in music of remarkable fluency
On the other hand itwould be difficult to imagine a more French colouring than that of the Variationssur un theme de Clement janequin (Variations on a theme of Clement janequin),which jehan Alain asks to be played "like the Preludes that Couperin spokeof with freshness and tenderly" The work is in fact based on an anonymousair of the sixteenth century, L 'espoir que j'ay d'acqu&ir vostre grace (Thehope I have of obtaining your favour), a score of great purity and wonderfulregistration.
Deux danses ii Agni Yavishta (TwoDances to Agni Yavishta) brings a return to exoticism, the idea forwhich came t