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8.553633 - ALAIN: Organ Works, Vol. 2

Jehan Alain (1911 -1940) Organ Works Vol

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

Eric Lebrun on the CavaiUe-Coll Organ of the Church of Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, Paris


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 le

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 here.


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. ..".1


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 modern.

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.


Alain Cochard

(English version by Keith Anderson)


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