Jehan Alain: A Centennary Tribute
November 15, 2011
— art music, choir, choral music, contemporary music, jehan alain, le jardin suspendu, listening, litanies, literacy, liturgical music, music, music education, sacred music, steven speciale
For the feast of All Saints, and in collaboration with the St. Andrew’s Choir and organist Duane Steadman, we presented music by the composer Jehan Alain.
A composer and performer of immense and precocious talent, Alain’s life was cut short in the line of duty during the Second World War. His sister, the eminent organist Marie-Claire Alain has tirelessly kept her brother’s music alive through her own performances and editing and publishing his music. I am proud to have helped, in our own small way, to introduce the music of Jehan Alain to a wider audience.
Le Jardin Suspendu composed in 1934, creates an exotic soundworld within the ancient chaconne form. The chant theme of Lucis Creator appears in the pedal, while the manuals sound grand chords. Finally, the theme is presented fugally, building to a climax with that theme triumphantly stated in the pedals.
One can clearly hear the impressionistic inﬂuence of composers
Fantasie for choir with closed-like Debussy and Messaien in this mouths.
Kyrie from Alain’s Messe de Requiem was composed in 1938 for a November service in the church of Saint-Nicholas de Maisons-Laﬁtte, where he was the church organist. Alain set to music only three of the Requiem texts – the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
The music is serene and suffused with the rhythmic and melodic essence of Gregorian chant.
Variations on Sacris Solemnis. Written for SSATB choir and organ, this motet is an ingenious set of variations on the Gregorian Hymn “Sacris Solemnis”. Each variation uses a different mensural note value while the basic tempo remains constant.
The Agnus Dei from Alain’s Messe de Requiem is the third section of the
Ordinary set to music by Alain. Alain eschews the tradtional setting of the sequence or even the models by
Brahms or Faure. This movement contains the only reference to the mass of the dead with its “Dona eis requiem” “Grant them peace”.
Alain’s Fantasia for humming choir is an evocative and introspective work. I chose it for a post-communion meditation because of one of Alain’s quotes:
“How deeply I wish that, in my music, each and every person found his or her own thoughts, and not mine.” During a time when we celebrate the communion of saints and remember all who have gone before us, I ﬁnd that the humanity of choral music minus the semantics of text to be appropriate.
For Alain, prayer was “a blast of wind that sweeps all before it”. Three weeks after writing the organ piece Litanies, his sister Marie-Odile died in a climbing accident. Alain added the dedication: “When Christian souls run out of words to implore the mercy of God, ﬁred by faith, they repeat over and over the same invocation”.