Friday, May 13, 2016

Marie-Claire Alain (1926-2013)

No. 221 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today's Blog and Podcast is part of our collection of many podcasts and playlists dedocated to organ music. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, there are really two major "schools" of organ music - German and French. Today's podcast looks at the latter.

Also, this is a bit of a revisit for me, as today's artist was the subject of a Tuesday Blog in 2013, and I will shamelessly reuse some of my musings from that very post.

According to, Marie-Claire Alain is the youngest child in a family of distinguished musicians. Her father, Albert Alain (1880-1971), a composer and amateur organ builder, had been a pupil of Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne and Gabriel Fauré. Her sister Odile was a promising soprano and pianist who lost her life early in a mountaineering accident; her older brother, Olivier Alain, was a composer, pianist, and musicologist. Her oldest brother was the renowned Jehan Alain, a composer and organist whose teachers included Marcel Dupré, Paul Dukas, and Jean Roger-Ducasse. He numbered Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc among his closest friends and his works for organ - Litanies, in particular - established him as one of the brightest stars among rising French composers in the decade before his battlefield death in 1940, at 29. A twin sense of loss and inheritance informed her studies and career.

At the age of 11 she made her debutas organist in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At age 18, in 1944, Marie-Claire entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Marcel Dupré for organ, Pié-Caussade for counterpoint and fugue, and Maurice Duruflé for harmony. She studied with M. Duruflé from 1944 until 1950, school-work being augmented by private lessons. During her Conservatoire years, she carried off four Premier Prix.

Her career truly takes off in 1950 with her formal debut in Paris. Over the years, she made frequent tours of Europe. In 1961 she made her first tour of the USA. During her career she has given well over 2,000 recitals world-wide. She succeeded her father as organist of the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye after his death in 1971 and served for 40 years. As a performing organist, she was particularly known for performing substantial works entirely from memory. Her exhaustive repertoire included works by the Baroque masters as well as contemporary scores.

Marie-Claire Alain was much in demand as a teacher. She lectured at the Haarlem Summer Academy of Organists in Holland from 1956 to 1972. She also gave master-classes around the world. She had a long association with the St Albans International Organ Festival.

Marie-Claire Alain's reputation as a performer and recording artist would be hard to overstate. Her recordings number in the hundreds, and she recorded the complete works of J.S. Bach three separate times, a singular achievement. She also recorded the complete works of over a dozen other major composers for the organ, as well as many individual important works. She was the most-recorded organist in the world, with over 260 recordings in her catalogue, several of which have won awards. By the 1980's, she had become known as a specialist in 17th and 18th century music, with numerous recordings of works by François Couperin, Nicolas de Grigny, Antonio Vivaldi, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Frideric Handel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Haydn, and Mozart - among many others - to her credit. But she also made distinguished recordings of Romantic repertoire with albums of works by Felix Mendelssohn, César Franck, Franz Liszt, Widor, Vierne, Francis Poulenc, and Jehan Alain - whose punctilious execution is suffused with passion - carrying into the 21st century living traditions extending to the middle of the 19th.

At the heart if this podcast is a long-forgotten recording of 18th Century French music by Clérambault and Louis Couperin, digitized by the French National Library for their CD reissues of Public Domain recordings from their vinyl collection. Jehan Alain and Boëllmann complete the recital.

I think you will love this music too!