Germain-en-Laye. Between 1927 and 1939, he attended the Paris Conservatiore and achieved First Prize in Harmony under André Bloch and First Prize in Fugue with Georges Caussade. He studied the organ with Marcel Dupré, under whose direction he took first prize for Organ and Improvisation in 1939. His studies in composition with Paul Dukas and Jean Roger-Ducasse won him the Prix des Amis de l'Orgue in 1936 for his Suite for Organ Op. 48, Introduction, Variations, Scherzo and Choral.
He was appointed organist of Saint-Nicholas de Maisons Lafitte in Paris in 1935, and remained there for four years. He also played regularly at the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth synagogue, where the only known recording of his playing – a six-minute improvisation – was made in 1938. His short career as a composer began in 1929, when Alain was 18, and lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War ten years later. His output was influenced not only by the musical language of his contemporaries Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy (seen in Le jardin suspendu, 1934), but also by an interest in the music, dance and philosophies of the far east (acquired at the Exposition coloniale internationale of 1931 and seen in Deux Danses à Agni Yavishta, 1932 and Deuxième Fantaisie, 1936), a renaissance of baroque music (seen in Variations sur un thème de Clément Janequin, 1937), and in jazz (seen in Trois Danses of 1939). He wrote choral music, including a Requiem mass, chamber music, songs and three volumes of piano music. But it is for his organ music for which he is best known.
His most famous work, Litanies, was initially composed as a humorous piece, and appears in its earliest manuscript form in mid-August 1937 with the subtitle "Story of a man who is pushing a little three-wheeled cart. Behind him are twenty policemen who are throwing bricks at him." However, the death in the Alps some weeks later of his 23-year old sister Odile, while protecting her brother Olivier, shattered the cheerful mood and Alain then named the piece Litanies and prefaced it with the text: "When, in its distress, the christian soul can find no more words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats, times without end, the same fierce-faithed prayer. Reason reaches its limits and only belief can chase its flight". Deuils ('mourning'), the second of the Trois Danses, is dedicated to Odile as a Funeral Dance to an heroic memory. Always interested in mechanics, Alain was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the 8th motorised armour division of the French Army.
On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoitre the German advance on the eastern side of Saumur and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. He attacked, but was killed following his refusal to surrender. He left behind his wife, Madeleine Payan whom he had married in 1935, their three children, and a musical output viewed by many to have been amongst the most original of the twentieth century, Alain's youngest sister, Marie-Claire Alain, is an internationally-renowned organist in her own right had has made several complete recordings of her brother's organ works. In an interview for The Organ, she made the following comments upon Jehan and his work: "The music is very rich, savoureux, a bit brutal, sometimes rather bad-tempered.
I can now do something more faithful to what he wanted. Jehan was quite a bit older than me, but he taught me everything. He was a very good big brother to me, and it was from him that I learned music. I acquired the repertoire by ear, from listening to him play.
My own playing owes a lot to him, too. We had an organ at home, and I used to hear him working on the entire repertoire. I have very vivid recollections of him playing Franck, Vierne, Bach and many other composers, as well as his own music, of course. We had the impression that he was living at 200 an hour.
It's often the case that people who die young live three times faster than everyone. And Jehan Alain had such an incredible vitality that people who get involved in his music quickly feel passionate about it, even now, a long time after his death. You can't remain indifferent to the personality and the music of Jehan Alain." Henri Dutilleux's Les Citations contains a quotation from Alain. Maurice Duruflé wrote a musical tribute to Jehan Alain with his work for organ entitled Prélude et Fugue sur l'nom d'A.L.A.I.N.
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