• 1911 — 1940
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Jehan Ariste Alain was born in St. Germain-en-Laye to a musical family headed by his father Albert, who was an organist, composer and organ builder. The elder Alain had built an organ into his own living room and home schooled three of his children (Jehan, Olivier, and Marie-Claire) in the art of playing the "King of Instruments." At age 16, Jehan Alain enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire, where he continued his organ studies with Marcel Dupré, taking composition with Jean Roger-Ducasse and Paul Dukas, and fugue with Georges Caussade. It is Caussade who is said to have had the deepest impact on Alain's own musical personality. Alain studied at the Conservatoire for the next 12 years, taking First Prize in Harmony and Fugue in 1934, and following it with a First Prize in Organ and Improvisation in 1939.
In 1935 he married, and from that time on he made his living playing at two places of worship: the Church of Saint-Nicolas de Maisons-Lafitte, and the synagogue at the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth. Like his father, Alain had an organ built into his home; this one had a rank of pedals that split at the center between a pair of divisions: 16' and 8' stops on the first half, and smaller stops on the second. It was on this instrument that he conceived his major mature works: the Trois Danses, Le Jardin suspendu, Litanies, and the Fantasies.
Jehan Alain's short life was difficult. He served in the French Army in 1933 and 1934, during which time he contracted a near-fatal case of pneumonia. His sister Odile was killed in a mountain climbing accident in 1937. At the end of 1939, Alain was mobilized again -- this time in the Eighth Motorized Armored Division -- and he died fighting the Germans in Petit-puy (outside Saumur) on June 20, 1940, at age 29. The manuscript pages of his final work, a full symphonic orchestration of the Trois Danses, were sucked out of the window of a moving train as Alain rode on to his final rendezvous.
In spite of the brevity of his life, Alain produced approximately 120 works. As a whole, his output is strikingly consistent and complete unto itself; scholars of Alain's music have difficulty developing precise dates for many of the works since telltale signs of stylistic development are practically absent from his music. His works sound with one voice, varied, but mature. Alain's music makes extensive use of the church modes, as well as coloristic dissonance. A somewhat rhapsodic approach to rhythm creates an ecstatic building up of bold, colorful and phantasmagoric sections in the Litanies and the Trois Danses that can be tremendously exciting to hear. In Le Jardin suspendu and short works such as the lovely Choral dorien he created smooth, mysterious textures that suggest an otherworldly, even divine, presence.
With his death, France immediately appreciated what she had lost; the first book-length study on Alain's music was published in 1941. In the early '70s, Alain's sister Marie-Claire made the first complete recording of his organ music, and in the digital era, further complete sets have been issued with Kevin Bowyer (Nimbus) and Eric Lebrun (Naxos). Lesser known is a considerable body of Alain's piano music, in addition to some choral music, including two masses, chamber music, and songs.