Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (Trois Pièces, No.1) [1937]

Choral Dorien (Deux Chorals, No.1) [1935]

Le Jardin suspendu (Trois Pièces, No.2) [1934]

Choral Phrygien (Deux Chorals, No.2) [1935]

Litanies (Trois Pièces, No.3) [1937]

Jehan Alain was without doubt one of the most original voices of the 20th century in the world of organ music, an accolade shared with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). That Alain was influenced by the music of Messiaen is also beyond doubt as is clear from “Le Jardin suspendu”. The two men shared interests in the music, dance, and philosophies of the Far East, as well as backgrounds in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, Alain’s life was cut short by the Second World War and we shall never know what might have been achieved in terms of his development as a composer. Jehan Alain was born into a musical family in the suburbs of Paris. His younger brother Olivier was also an organist and composer, and his sister, Marie-Claire (born in 1926), continues to have an influential career as a recitalist, teacher, scholar, and promoter of her brother’s music. Alain was an ardent motor cyclist and joined the French Army at the outbreak of war as a dispatch rider. Sent to reconnoitre the advancing German front he came upon some German troops at whose hands he met his death, although not before using his carbine to take sixteen of the enemy with him. For this he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre. He left a wife and three children.

His musical output includes a great deal of piano, chamber, and vocal music. Music for the organ is often, if not usually, linked to the worship of the church but this link is nowhere near as clear in the music of Alain as it is with his two notable contemporaries, Messaien and Langlais (1907-1991). At first sight, the titles of the “Deux Chorals” and “Litanies” may appear to refute this statement. However, in this context the word “choral” certainly has none of the significance that it would have in the German tradition or particularly in the music of Bach. That the basic musical ideas are chorale- or hymn-like is true, but that is all. The keywords here are “musical ideas” and the other words from the titles – “Dorien” and “Phrygien”. What the composer is about is the exploration, in each piece, of a relatively simple musical idea within a certain tonal/harmonic framework somewhat divorced from the more usual major or minor modes. This results in interesting melodic and harmonic relationships and progressions. In “Choral Dorien” the rising and falling melodic motif, with the varied harmonies which accompany it, is rather obvious. What is not quite so apparent is the repeating five-bar pattern of twelve notes in the pedal which occurs almost five times, albeit being transposed at one point. The fifth repetition breaks off, however, after seven notes, leading to further statements of the first five and seven notes of the pattern respectively and, in the tiny two-bar coda, a reiteration of the first two notes. So within a deceptively simple sounding texture lies an elegant structure directly based on the classic principle of the Ground Bass. But no, despite the pedal pattern containing twelve notes there does not appear to be evidence of serialism in this piece. “Choral Phrygien” opens with a hymn-like texture which becomes the accompaniment for an equally hymn-like melody. An interlude leads to a repetition of the whole with a more intense registration, the erstwhile interlude becoming a brief coda. In these pieces we discover a genius for balance and symmetry.

With the “Trois Pièces” we come to the one book of Alain’s music which probably graces the collections of most aspiring organists. In particular, “Litanies” may even be somewhat regarded as a “warhorse” of the repertoire. Sadly, the other two pieces are only rarely played. Clément Jannequin (c.1485-1558) was a composer of vocal music (chansons) characterised by their highly effective word-painting, making them among the earliest examples of “programme” or descriptive music. Despite the actual title of the “Variations”, Alain notes in the score “Air, en realité, anonyme” and goes on to mention that it is one of a collection of “31 chansons” published by Attaignant in 1529. He further says that the piece should be played “avec fraîcheur et tendresse”. So it is gentle and the variations are uncomplicated – a change of key from tonic minor to relative major, a “fugato” and a reprise. “Le Jardin suspendu” has as its subtitle “Chacone” and this structure is accomplished not by a repeating bass pattern but by a repeating 12-bar pattern of chords whose upper voice traces a simple folk-like tune. Around this framework a freely composed melody weaves its way. The overall effect is somewhat dreamlike and its easy-going nature is illustrated by the directions in the score – “senza fretta” and “senza rigore”. Alain’s registration suggestions, which (as is the case with all French organ music) must be taken as literally as possible within the scope of the instrument, are almost exclusively for higher pitched stops which help to convey the elevated, ethereal nature of the hanging garden. Of this, Alain writes that it is “le refuge inaccessible et inviolable” and something of an ideal perpetually pursued by the artist. “Litanies” calls to mind the repetitive, insistent nature of certain kinds of prayer and mantra. Of the three pieces it is the only one with any overt link to religious faith and practice. Again, in the score Alain notes that when the Christian soul has run out of words to express its distress and to beg God’s mercy, it repeats the same invocation over and over again without ceasing. “La raison,” he says, “atteint sa limite.” The manner in which this is reflected in the piece is obvious and, the bigger the organ the better! Interestingly, however, the material for this piece has a provenance rather distinct from the matter of prayer. With its irregular, jerky rhythms, it first saw light as the basis for a piano piece designed to describe the wobbling journey of an elderly man riding his bicycle down the street near the Alain home!