When I was a hormone-addled adolescent, sheer volume was my intoxicant of choice. But while my mates were piping The Doors and Mott the Hoople into their glassy-eyed heads, I had my headphones wired to Beethoven and Bach.
Not just any Bach would do, though. My eyes glowed from within at the decibel deluge dispensed by Virgil Fox. Fox was the consummate showman of the organ, playing to brilliant light shows, gleefully inviting rowdy twenty-something rock fans into his "House of Music."
Years went by, the hormones settled down, and I came to appreciate other elements in music beyond the mind-numbing wash of sound. I learned to experience Bach from a more thoughtful perspective. I didn’t abandon VF altogether, but I discovered that other performers had different things – important things – to say about Bach.
From at least my early twenties, the Bach organist I kept returning to was Marie-Claire Alain. I write this today with an overwhelming sadness: I’ve just learned that she’s died at the age of 86. The church where she was organist for 40 years, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, announced last week that she had died in a retirement home near Paris. She had been in declining health since the death of her son Benoît in 2009, and had stopped playing in 2010.
Marie-Claire Alain came from a thoroughly musical family. She said in 1994, "We played Bach virtually every evening, playing on the organ, singing cantatas. Bach was almost a family illness!"
Her father Albert was an organist, composer, and amateur organ builder; her sister Odile, a singer, who tragically died young. Her older brother, Jehan Alain, was a gifted organist and the composer of such extraordinary works as Litanies. Jehan lost his life in the Second World War. Her younger brother, Olivier, became an organist and director of the conservatory in their home town; he died in 1994.
Marie-Claire Alain was born on 10 August 1926 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. Initially, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be an organist: "As everybody at home played the organ, I initially found it boring to become an organist. I wanted to do something else." But when the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, she entered the conservatory there and began studying with Marcel Dupre and Maurice Durufle. She won the Premier Prix four times.
Alain came to love the organ. Although she also played the harpsichord, I’ve only encountered one recording she made with that instrument. In the late 1980s she told an interviewer, "For no other instrument [than organ] do I have an affinity."
Her repertoire ranged from the Baroque to the 20th century. It included Couperin, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Handel, CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franck, Liszt and Widor. She also performed Messiaen, Vierne, Poulenc, and the complete works of her brother Jehan Alain.
I expect, though, that it’s for Bach that she’ll be most remembered. Marie-Claire Alain had a sparkle in her life and in her playing that meshed ideally with his music. She was a particular fan of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G, the Great Prelude in E major, and the trio sonatas.
Alain launched her performance career in 1950, just about when organ builders were starting to develop instruments – notably trackers – better suited to the clear textures of Baroque music. Later, it was direct access to organs Bach had played that led her to record and re-record his works: "It’s an extraordinary feeling," she said, "to put your hands on the keyboard, knowing that he was there 250 years before you!"
Marie-Claire Alain never stopped studying Bach, searching history for clues to the informed performance of his music. Thus it is that she was one of only two organists to record the complete works of Bach three times. She told The Organ Magazine, "I learned a quite a bit when I was doing that [first] cycle [in the 1960s], and in the meantime an enormous amount of study into early music was being undertaken, so I recorded the second cycle in 1975-78. I never imagined I’d do a third complete Bach. What happened was that I was allowed access to the organ in Groningen [The Netherlands], which had been newly restored, and I made a recital disc, for pleasure. Then I made two other discs, and I thought I should continue."
Alain was the first musician that France’s Erato Records recorded when they opened for business in 1954. Their later recording of the Bach trio sonatas was her first major sales success. She became the world’s most widely recorded organist, with about 300 recordings to her credit.
Petite and polite, with grace and a gentle humor, Marie-Claire Alain could play not just with intellect and style, but – when necessary – with a ferocity that belied her modest physical stature. She also had unshakeable views about the importance of passing musical literacy on to later generations. She taught at the conservatory of Rueil-Malmaison and later at the Paris Conservatory, and had a long relationship with the St Albans International Organ Festival and the Haarlem Summer Academy in The Netherlands. Alain gave master classes worldwide, including North America. Until the last few years, she was a regular at McGill University’s Summer Organ Academy.
Marie-Claire Alain is survived by her daughter, Aurélie Gommier-Decourt, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Jacques Gommier, died in 1992.
Marie-Claire Alain Obituary in Gramophone
Marie-Claire Alain on her third Bach cycle in The Organ magazine
Marie-Claire Alain plays Bach’s "Great" g-minor fugue, S542, Schwenkedel organ, Collégiale de Saint Donat, France, 1970, via Youtube