Marie-Claire Alain (10 August 1926–26 February 2013)
27 February 2013
The entire organ world is united in mourning the death of
the renowned French organist and teacher, Marie-Claire Alain, at the age of 86.
She was the last surviving child of organist and composer Albert Alain (1880-1971) - her two brothers, Jehan (born in 1911 and tragically killed on active service in 1940), and Olivier (1919-1994), joined her in pursuing careers in music: she studied organ with Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatoire, taking four prizes, and harmony with Maurice Duruflé.
Alain became world famous as a result of recording the complete organ works of J S Bach - she did so three times - and throughout her career was a champion, and acutely sensitive performer of, her brother Jehan's music. In a published interview which revealed the development of her artistic thinking and educative approach, she explained why she kept returning to Bach: 'It's because of the instruments, the instruments above everything else, and the fine state to which they have been restored - and the fact that they are now accessible. These recordings use instruments from Bach's time, and we know that Bach even played some of them - it's an extraordinary feeling, to put your hands on the keyboard, knowing that he was there 250 years before you!
'And I studied these instruments very thoroughly before choosing the ones I wanted to record on. Some of the organs I visited were good but still not quite what I wanted, and with others it was a coup de foudre. My style, too, is much purer; and these organs have to be treated with much respect: you can't force them to play too fast.
'We know much more now about performance practice in Bach's day and of other composers of his time: different position of the hands on the keyboard, different fingering, accentuation... Our entire approach has to be rethought in terms of what we have since discovered. I have discussed it with colleagues, obviously, I have listened to harpsichordist friends, violinists, singers. We all share our research. We now know that the way this music was played at the beginning of the century was according to the standards of the Romantic period. We couldn't go on like that; we had to rediscover the criteria of Bach's day. Well, now we have found them.'
Marie-Claire Alain's career was crowned only recently with her promotion to the rank of Grand Officier in the order of the Légion d’Honneur. She received her decoration from Admiral Lacoste, representing the President of the French Republic, on 23 November 2012.
A full obituary will appear in the May/June issue of Choir & Organ.