It's a shame the music of French composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940) remains something of a shared secret between a small number of people. As there are a vast number of composers out there for me to have opened this blog with (many much more famous than Alain), I hope you'll see that blogs might be good for lots of things and that one of them could be sharing such a secret with you. So, if you are unfamiliar with this music, please try out a few pieces by Jehan Alain and see what you make of them.
The music of his great contemporary Olivier Messiaen has a large following and Alain's music, much of it for organ, shares some features with Messiaen's, whilst having a character all of its own. Messiaen lovers should easily take it to heart, as should those who relish the French organ school and, yes, anyone who treasures those pioneers of French modal writing from the dawn of the last century - Faure, Debussy and Ravel - should find much to love too.
Alain is a more traditional composer than that great explorer Messiaen, but his use of modality is certainly nothing if not searching. Messiaen was not keen on being described as a 'mystical' composer, but many people feel he is. Alain certainly is. Messiaen's works grew to monumental length as he grew older. Alain's forever remain more intimate in scope. He is, in many ways, a miniaturist. Like Messiaen, his pieces though are generally sectional. What deepens his music is its sheer craftsmanship, as if Alain were inspired by the spirit of Bach.
His life was cut short by the invading Germans in 1940, but he still managed to write a substantial number of pieces in what few years he had on Earth.
As an example of Alain's magical miniatures, try the Petite Piece. The piece opens with a rhythmically-flexible, modal opening melody (with no sense of the four-square about it), whose colours keeps changing (every four bars or so), exploiting the organ's myriad possibilities. The tone is soft-spoken, like much of its composer's music - as intimate as a pastoral Nativity scene. (Messiaen fans might like to recall 'Les Bergers' from 'La Nativite'). The melody is harmonised no less modally, and appears as a sequence of chords. After a pause, a second tune enters. It, too, is modal and flexibly-phrased - and very lovely. Like so many of Alain's most characteristic tunes, this has a strong flavour of plainchant about it. Beneath it runs a constant semi-quaver accompaniment, a murmur, flowing like a current of air on which the melody floats like a feather - or like a chorale (and Bach's chorale preludes spring to mind here). Again, the instrumentation changes as the tune proceeds. Another pause leads to the brief closing section, where the second tune is treated as a canon. Even as the piece closes, the composer keeps changing its colours. The work lasts about three minutes.
As this is the internet, I'm going to have to keep linking to YouTube. It's an absolute pleasure to do with the next piece, as the video is quite a work of art in itself. This link carries you to what is probably Alain's most famous piece, Litanies. Here the mystical meets the fierce urgency of now (to shamelessly rip off another Messiaenic [sic] figure!). There's nothing soft-spoken about this piece and many find a sense of desperate hope in it.
The plainchant-like opening, which is to recur, speaks, stern and priest-like. Then comes the main tune, catchy, dance-like, rushed, fervent. It alternates with an idea that sounds like the furious beating of many wings. The music hurls itself onwards, pausing, rushing, slowing, speeding, growing ever more phantasmagoric. The irregularity of the composer's rhythms add to the work's sense of nervous intensity, as do the many dissonances. Both dance towards a grand climax which then accelerates dizzyingly towards a glorious apotheosis. Alain wanted his performers to exhaust themselves by the end of the piece. Presumably, he also wanted his listeners to exhaust themselves too. That despite the length of the piece - some four and a half minutes.
A world away from the tumult of Litanies is Le jardin suspendu, (The Hanging Garden), where time itself seems to be suspended. The music must be played slowly, as if there were not only all the time in the world but all the time in the universe too. Here are a couple of YouTube's finest takes on this masterpiece:
The first is especially slow (best matching my sense of the music), the second somewhat quicker. The opening melody, played against a drone, with gorgeous harmonies, sets the mystical tone. For those who are in on the secret of Alain, this melody is characteristic of the man's music, being a tune of great distinction and memorability, which Alain sets a-singing amid constantly changing chords and colours, intensifying it, pausing, then bringing it back, seraphically, in the most luminous registers of the organ. A chromatic cloud passes over the music midway, like a momentary crisis, but the music of the opening is not long in returning, newly enriched in harmony, clothed in radiant tranquillity. It's with works like Le jardin suspendu that Alain's music most closely approaches that of Messiaen.
The Variations sur un thème de Clément Janequin is another outstanding example of this composer's art, and one of the works you are more likely to hear beyond the blogosphere. Janequin was something of a joker among Renaissance composers but Alain's beautiful work is far from jokey; indeed, it has something of a melancholy feel. The tune is very much the sort of a tune you would expect a tunesmith from the age of Janequin to compose and Alain presents it at the start of the piece. The first variation sets the theme, treated straightforwardly, against some very exotic harmonies. The melody is then embellished with Bach-like freedom, and the harmonies stray as much as the melody. The cadences of Renaissance popular music act as regular drops of the anchor of familiarity in the piece's structure and punctuate the softly swaying chords of the ensuing variation. (Those swaying chords, which are are a recurrent feature of the Variations, will again remind Messiaen devotees of their own man and his 'colour chords'.) The embellished theme returns as the music grows a little more contrapuntal. The swaying chords continue to drift by as as a new variant of the theme is spun out towards the work's end.
[For a sense of the use of 'colour chords' at their simplest in early Messiaen, give this prelude, La colombe (The dove), a whirl.]
YouTube also features the only known live recording by Jehan himself. He was, apparently, a great improviser and Les Fêtes de l'Année Israelite is a great improvisation made in 1938 at the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth synagogue in Paris, where he performed regularly. Not perfect sound quality, of course, yet the beauty of Alain's melodies shines through. I don't doubt that you will spot his imitation of the shofar, the ram's horn used at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The style here is more conservative than in the other pieces I've described, reflecting the influence of the more Romantic, preceding generation of organ-writing Frenchmen. Delightful, isn't it?