The Life and Music of
Jehan Alain was one of the
most gifted and distinctive composers
The title quote of this page were possibly the last words written by Jehan Alain on the manuscript of his final composition, Trois Danses. He had a number of his manuscripts with him when he was killed by a German patrol on June 19, 1940 near Saumur in occupied France. The two musical quotes above are from the opening bar of his most famous piece for organ, Litanies.
All of the "art" of Alain, whether it was his music, his writings or drawings, serve as an extraordinary insight into this almost tragic figure. His final words, in connection with the second of the Trois Danses, Deuils (the opening bars of which form the background for this page) clearly betray his disturbing premonition of his own death.
Jehan Ariste Alain was born into a family of organists on February 3rd, 1911 in St-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb in west Paris. His father Albert, was a composer, organist and even organ-builder, having built the Alain house organ for which many of Jehan's works would be written. Jehan's younger brother Olivier was also to become an organist and composer and of course, his sister, Marie-Claire Alain, is still one of the most famous concert organists alive today. By the age of eleven, Jehan was already composing and playing organ in the Alain house and around St-Germain-en-Laye. The earliest known work from this time is a duet for Piano and Harmonium, the short Canon en Mode Dorien.
He went on to further his studies at the Conservatoire Nationale Superieur in Paris. He studied composition with Paul Dukas and Jean Roger-Ducasse and organ performance and improvisation with Marcel Dupre. In addition to the influeneces of these inordinately gifted teachers, Alain was also affected by occurrences outside the sometimes stale confines of the Paris Conservatoire.
|One of the many sketches
found in Alain's notebook.
Of the mountains, he wrote:
"The mountains inundate,
compose and purify us."
The Alain family often enjoyed visiting the Valloires
Abbey in the Somme region for a few days of rest. It was one such visit
in 1930 that inspired one Jehan's many dreamy and enchanting works for
the organ, Postlude pour l'Office de Complies, wherein the Gregorian
Compline chants weave freely in and out of a dreamy lacework of lullaby-like
chords. Of the Abbey, he wrote: "There is an organ here with three
manuals and which is placed in the most acoustigenic (sic!)
place that I have ever been in. There are stops which are 300
years old and which have such a flavour! This instrument is marvellous
to play at around 11 o'clock at night when the surrounding countryside
is absolutely silent and when one plays pianissimo, the bass pedal notes
make the air tremble. It is really moving." The Gregorian influence
was to remain with him as he would often utilise the Gregorian modes as
a basis for his tonalities and would sometimes write in a style evocative
of plainsong (Deux Chorals (Dorien et Phrygien),
Ballade (en Mode Phrygien), Monodie,
In 1931, he attended the Paris Colonial Exhibition and there he was introduced to the music, dance and philosophies of the Far-East. It was these influences which led to works such as the Deux Danses a Agni Yavishta (two whimsical "fire dances" - Agni Yavishta being the Hindu god of fire) and Le Jardin Suspendu (a charming, dreamy work modelled on a chaconne). Among other influences were jazz (eg, the first and third of the Trois Danses contain jazz-like rhythms) and on the other end of the spectrum, a revival in interest of Baroque and other early music. (his Variations sur un Theme de Clement Jannequin admirably evoking an early style whilst embroidering it with his own musical language).
|Many of Alain's drawings
betrayed his almost impish
sense of humour. Here we
see some mischievous
elves at the organ.
For many years of his too short life, his art was "the only form of happiness" and he sought expression in other forms as well as music, including drawing and poetry. He carried with him, a small book with blank pages on which he could draw, write or compose. For the latter, he carried a special five-nibbed pen in order to quickly draw manuscript lines on which to write his musical ideas or he would even just hurriedly scribble them out on the blank pages. Frequently, his manuscript scores would be accompanied with a quote or drawing or sometimes both.
In 1935, Alain married his childhood love, Madeline Payan, but this sadly caused a great rift in his family, taking many years to heal. Jehan and Madeline had three children in what were to become increasingly difficult times. Jehan was constantly pressed for time trying to support his family whilst living, as much as he could, as a professional musician. Much of his music was written during any spare moment he had - during train trips or even surreptitiously during classes at the Conservatoire. (Bernard Gavoty can recall that in some of Dupre's improvisation classes, if Jehan found the other student's improvisations too dull, he would quietly place his notebook on his lap and write. Both Gavoty and Marie-Claire Alain suspect that the final pages of the Aria were written on such an occasion). The stressful situations of living basically worsened over the few remaining years of his life.
In 1937, whilst on holiday in the French Alps, his sister Odile (then aged only 23) was killed in a mountaineering accident whilst trying to save their younger brother, Olivier, from a fall. Jehan's anguish and grief over her death suddenly became more accentuated by what was to become one of the most extraordinary and unique pieces of music in the repertoire, Litanies, which he had completed only a few days before Odile's death. A piece, which in early drafts was almost comical in nature, evolved into an agonised cry for help in the form of a prayer violently thrown before his God. Litanies is still played the world over, often heard, often misunderstood. Still more extraordinary is that in the same week he completed Litanies, he had also completed another highly significant work, Deuils. The death of Odile also served as a grim reminder to his own fears that he too, might encounter a premature and tragic death. An entry in his notebook quotes poet Jean Cocteau: "I see death below from the height of this fair age." Indeed, little else can be said of Deuils (the second of Trois Danses) but that it was a chilling premonition of his own tragic end.
This curious sketch of a bizzare animal
tumbling down a
His last known work was an unfinished orchestration of this monumental trilogy, the Trois Danses. Alain's fellow students and collegues would remember him as something of a daredevil on the motorcylce and would partake of wild rides around the streets of Paris and St Germain-en-Laye. So it was as a dispatch rider in the 8th French tank division in World War Two, that Jehan would often volunteer for dangerous missions during the Belgium campaign.
On June 19th, 1940, he accepted an assignment to check on the enemy advance at the eastern side of Saumur and it was at Le Petit-Puy that he ran into a German patrol. It was discovered in 1999 by this author, that Jehan Alain was not alone on this mission as was previously thought to have been the case. It is now also known that Jehan attacked the patrol by himself against the wishes of his comrade - this does of course leave a large question mark - why? It seems extraordinary that it was only after he was killed that the German patrol leader realised they were attacked by one man. Even more extraordinary to think that he was consequently awarded a posthumous medal for bravery by both the French and German sides!
With his creativity at it's height, it was on June 19th, 1940, that Jehan Alain, organist, composer and cavalryman defending his country, fell with a bullet through his heart. Now survived only by his children (Madeline died in 1971), he was, to quote his friend Bernard Gavoty: "aged only 29 - and a genius."
Today in St Germain-en-Laye, there exists Place Jehan Alain, a modest and unassuming memorial, not far from his birthplace.
This page presented by Matthew
(Organist, St Francis Xavier's Cathedral, South Australia)
As work on this page develops, I hope to be able to include more
detailed discussions of his work.
Major works of Jehan Alain