JEHAN ALAIN (1911 - 1940)
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 3 February 1911, into the family of the organist and composer Albert Alain. Equally enthusiastic as an organ builder, Albert Alain 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 Jehan Alain’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 Dupré. 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 phony 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 20 May 1940. “I 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”.