Jehan Alain (1911-1940)

A promise cut short

The influence of French composers on the world of organ music is without question. From the 17th century of Couperin though the 19th century of Franck to the 20th century of Messiaen there is a clear line of descent of teachers and pupils. The world of music has several examples of brilliance cut short by ill-health, but few as tragic as the young genius of Jehan Alain, killed in action in the Second World War.

Jehan was born on 3rd February 1911 at St Germain-en-Laye. His father Albert (1880-1971) an organist, composer and amateur organ builder, was a pupil of Guilmant and Vierne. His sister Marie-Claire, a concert organist, this year celebrates her 70th birthday. Jehan was himself to be a pupil of Paul Dukas, Roger Ducasse, and (perhaps the greatest organist ever) Marcel Dupré. His early years were spent in a house fully equipped to satisfy every young musician's dreams. There were pianos in almost every room, a harmonium and, most importantly, a house organ built by his father (who continued to work on it until he was ninety). As befits a home-made organ it possessed some unusual features, which are reflected in Jehan's music and the choice of stops required. From the age of eleven Jehan was the organist at his local church. Jehan also studied piano and his abilities on this instrument were hardly less than on the organ.

Despite a serious attack of pneumonia in 1932 which left him very weak, he won prizes in 1933 at the Paris Conservatoire. Following National Service for a year, he married his childhood sweetheart while still only 23. His compositions were, for the period, experimental in both rhythm and modes, and failed to impress the establishment. Despite this he was most productive during this period, which led to the award of the Premier Prix for organ in 1939 just before the outbreak of war, when he was called for active service. On 20th June 1940 he was killed whilst on a mission during the Battle of Saumur. His body was found close to his bicycle by the roadside, with his music manuscripts scattered in the wind.

Why should this singular figure, largely unknown outside the world of French music, merit consideration as a spiritual hero? Perhaps it is the magnetism of his music. Some twenty years ago I bought a box-set of his complete organ works. Running to only three discs, they would be an essential on my desert island. It is difficult music both to listen to and to play, but that is almost certainly where the long-term satisfaction comes. More recently I heard his Messe modale in a liturgical setting of an Austrian Sunday service. Almost unheard of in this country, this deserves a wider audience.

Jehan Alain was a small man of uncertain health who, conscripted to serve his nation, paid the ultimate price. In this he was not alone, but the loss of any scholar, whether literary theological or musical, in the misery of war is tragic. In such a short life his contributions are of such quality that we can only dream of what might have been.

Nigel Day
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997