By James David Christie
The world lost one of its greatest and most beloved musicians on 26 February 2013, when the great teacher, recording artist and organist, Marie-Claire Alain, passed away in her 87th year. She was among the very few organists known in households around the world. She was usually referred to as the “First Lady of the Organ” and she was definitely that, but I always thought she should have been more appropriately called the “Greatest Organist in the World” — it made no difference at all that she was a woman! She came from a generation in France that was filled with wonderful virtuoso organists: Jeanne Demessieux, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, Suzanne Chaisemartin, Pierre Cochereau, Pierre Labric, and Jeanne Joulain.
Her extraordinary influence on the organ world is almost impossible to put into words. I would not be an organist today if I had not started to listen to her recordings of Bach, Couperin, Grigny, D’Aquin, and the works of her brother, Jehan, on the Musical Heritage Society label when I was ten years old. I had many organ recordings, but there were none that made me love the organ like those of Marie-Claire. What captivated me were her exquisite touch, her ability to perform ornaments so musically, her unique and colorful registrations, and her ability to project and communicate music in a way I had never heard from any other organists.
When I was 14 years old, I first heard her perform live in concert. She performed on a mediocre American Classic electric action organ in Rochester, Minnesota, but she made it sound like a great musical instrument. This was certainly due to the fact her fingers were trained to make music sing and dance on the finest mechanical action organs in Europe and her choice of intriguing registrations that one had never heard before. She really brought early music to life and she made me forget about Widor and Vierne (at least for a few years!).
Marie-Claire brought this gift with her to every organ she played and had the unique ability to make the worst instrument sound good. She ended her Rochester concert with a breathtaking performance of her signature work, her brother Jehan Alain’s Litanies, and followed it with a fifteen-minute improvisation on the hymn tune St. Anne. Her encore was an unforgettable performance of J. S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552/2 (the “St. Anne” fugue). Following the concert, I spoke with her, using my two years of elementary French, and after our conversation, she gave me a big hug, her carte de visite, and told me to keep in touch. For the next several years, I followed her around the United States for master classes and private lessons, eventually moving to Paris at the age of 20 to privately study with her. We always remained in close contact over the past forty-five years and were close friends until her death.
She was an extraordinary teacher and her influence on so many organists around the world is still evident today. Many of her former students hold major academic positions at universities and conservatories in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, South America, Asia, and South Africa. She taught at the Haarlem Organ Academy in the Netherlands every summer from 1956-1972 with her close friends Anton Heiller and Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. It was here that she developed her reputation as a master teacher. She was a student of Marcel Dupré, but was never one of his disciples. Her style of playing, especially of early music and French Romantic music, evolved and differed greatly from that of Dupré. She worked privately with both André Marchal and Gaston Litaize, who had a profound influence on her playing. She felt her changes from the Dupré style of organ playing were the reason she was never offered a post as organ professor at the Paris National Conservatory. Instead, she had a huge private studio and trained some of the greatest international organists of the present generation on her two-manual Haerpfer-Erman house organ in her homes in L’Étang-la-Ville or Maule, at the Church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, or at the Regional National Conservatories in Rueil-Malmaison (1978-1994) and Paris (1994-2000).
In her lifetime, Marie-Claire Alain performed over 2,500 concerts and made over 280 recordings. She worked tirelessly, championing and promoting the music of her brother, Jehan Alain (1911-1940). Jehan was killed in action at the age of 29 in the earliest days of World War II; her older sister, Marie-Odile (1914-1937), also a very fine musician, died tragically in a mountain accident at the age of 23. She made two editions of the organ works of Jehan’s music and in 2001 wrote a book on the differences in his various manuscripts (Critical Notes on the Organ Works of Jehan Alain; Éditions Alphonse Leduc, Paris, 2001). After the death of her younger brother, Olivier Alain (1918-1994), she began editing his compositions for publication and worked on this project until 2009.
Marie-Claire’s list of accomplishments, awards, and honorary doctorates are immense and would fill several pages. She held the rank of Commandeur in the Légion d’honneur, the Ordre National du Mérite, and the Arts et Lettres. French President François Hollande promoted Marie-Claire Alain to the rank of Grand Officer in the Order of the Légion d’honneur on 14 July 2012. Her last teaching appearance in North America took place at the McGill Summer Organ Academy, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in July 2007, and her very last trip to North America was as a juror for the First Canadian International Organ Competition in Montreal in the fall of 2008. She served on that jury with five of her former students: John Grew (Artistic Director of the CIOC), Dame Gillian Weir, James David Christie, Ludger Lohmann, and James Higdon.
In addition to being an extraordinary teacher and musician, Marie-Claire will always be remembered for her charming, warm, and kind personality. She was very generous and always so proud of the accomplishments of her students and her family. She was especially proud of her daughter, the musicologist Aurélie Decourt. Aurélie wrote several excellent books on the Alain family history and organized the 2011 Jehan Alain National Festival in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, a magnificent three-day celebration of concerts, lectures, discussions, and an exhibition observing the centenary of Jehan’s birth.
Marie-Claire’s students and friends are very grateful for the wonderful, attentive care Aurélie gave her mother in her last years. Marie-Claire’s legacy lives on in her students and will live into the future in their students. She had a career and life full of excitement, glory, terrible moments of sorrow, but mostly moments of great joy and love. Marie Claire Alain is the last great concert organist of her generation and how we will miss her!
James David Christie is Chair and Professor of Organ at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Oberlin, OH), Distinguished Artist in Residence at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA); College Organist at Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA) and Organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Boston, MA). He was Visiting Professor of Organ at the Paris National Conservatory in the fall of 2010.
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Image credit: Marie-Clarie Alain seated at the organ at the Church of St., Vincentin Mérignac, France in June 2005. Courtesy of James David Christie.