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ALAIN: Organ Works, Vol. 2

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Jehan Alain (1911 -1940) Organ Works Vol. 2

Eric Lebrun on the CavaiUe-CollOrgan of the Church of Saint-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 instrumentthe most essential elements of his genius. This is not surprising when weremember the 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 ofthe organist and composer Albert Alain. Equally enthusiastic as anorgan-builder, Albert AI1iin had built in the family living-room an instrumentthat must have influenced the musical taste of his eldest son, as did the longhours he spent by the side of his father at the organ of the Church of Saint-Germainor at the piano of his maternal grandmother, Alice Alberty, an excellentamateur musician who had once studied with a pupil of Chopin. Having quicklyunderstood his son's inclination to music, Albert Alain provided him with thefirst foundation of the art, before making him take piano lessons with AugustePierson, organist of Saint- Louis at Versailles.


Time confirmed JehanAlain's talents and soon took him to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied harmonywith 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 his duties as organist atthe 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 depths ofdemocracy and of war Luckily the smile of good old Bach, the tears of obstinateBeethoven, the sighs and cries of some others form a solid base onto which wehang on the dark ladder of circumstances", he noted in his diary Thedullness of the phoney war was soon dispelled by the German offensive of May1940 Jehan Alain took part in the struggle, displaying exceptional bravery andconfidence, but neither faith nor music could help him. He was killed by enemyfire on 20thMay 1940. "1 see death below from the height of this fairage" was the verse of Jean Cocteau that Alain had written several yearsbefore in his diary. It now took on a strangely premonitory 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 in Christand in God"

"In our time weare tired of lofty discourse The public is not so stupid Do not insist onmusical evidence Avoid commonplaces Be brief' The desire for conciseness, forconcentration 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. heredances, there dreams, remarked Bernard Gavoty, but meditation demands no lessof life than activity in this way an Adagio can be as rich as a Scherzo"


The three Danses, sketchedfor piano from 1937, were adapted for the organ in 1939 and the composer wasworking on an orchestral version at the time of his death. They represent theheight of Jehan Alain's achievement as a composer, marked throughout by wealthand power of inspiration. The first movement Joies (Joys) ischaracterized by nervous rhythms, with moments of tranquil recollection. Thecentral movement Deuils (Mourning) is in complete contrast, "tohonour the memory of a hero", Alain wrote as epigraph to a piece that issad 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 intensityof feeling dispels any tendency to mere outward show.


Intermezzowas written in 1934 in aversion for two pianos and bassoons, designed for the Paris ConservatoireComposition Competition. The following year Alain transcribed it for the organunder the title La Fileuse (The Spinner). Rhythmically inventive, this piece,in its fluidity and diversity of colours, is among the most representativeorgan works of the composer.


Jehan Alain was stilla student of Blochand Caussadewhen, in 1932, he composed his Variations surle

Lucis Creator. The rigour with whichthese teachers guided the steps of the young composer is certainly reflected inthis score, but there is also present a recognisable musical identity. Thetheme is presented majestically, giving rise to two variations, the firstsupported by a left-hand part that is flowing and regular, a procedure of whichAlain was very fond, and the second a Thema fugatum, in which thecomposer shows superb contrapuntal skill.


Among the first worksof Jehan Alain for organ is the Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent, writtenin 1929. Around a C sharp and D sharp held throughout the whole piece, there isan atmosphere of a transparency that reminds us of the composer's attachment tothe world of childhood. "Little children" , he wrote, "have sucha pure look, so movingly sincere that their blue eyes, in little faces withoutexpression, take on a terrifying intensity", a look that we seem to seehere.

Item number 8553633
Barcode 730099463324
Release date 12/01/1999
Category Organ
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Lebrun, Eric
Lebrun, Eric
Composers Alain, Jehan
Alain, Jehan
Producers Pelissier, Laurent
Pelissier, Laurent
Disc: 1
Postlude pour l'office des Complies
1 Joies
2 Deuils
3 Luttes
4 Intermezzo
5 Theme
6 Premiere variation
7 Deuxieme variation
8 Berceuse sur deaux notes qui cornent
9 Grave
10 Lamento
11 Premiere Fantaisie
12 Prelude
13 Fugue
14 Choral dorien
15 Aria
16 Postlude pour l'office des Complies
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