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Marie-Claire Alain: Prodigious French organist


The French organ virtuoso Marie-Claire Alain was that rare jewel: a teenage musical prodigy who matured into one of the finest and most sought after recitalists and teachers.

 Acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, the sheer breadth of her industry brought not only greater recognition for the instrument itself, but also proved pivotal in inspiring countless generations of performers.

Born into a distinguished French musical dynasty, almost from infancy Marie-Claire Alain was playing the organ in the family home. Her organist father, Albert, a pupil of Guilmant and Vierne, was also a composer, as were her two elder brothers, Olivier and Jehan. Tragically killed in action in 1940, aged only 29, Jehan left behind a huge corpus of original music.  Following his death, Marie-Claire resolved to devote her life to championing his compositions. 

At the Paris Conservatoire, from 1944, her prodigious musical gifts were nurtured by Maurice Duruflé, Simone Plé-Caussade and Marcel Dupré. It was they who instilled in her the academic discipline that not only characterised her subsequent career, but in the short term brought her a raft of prizes. While further refining her technique with André Marchal and Gaston Litaize, having won both the Organ Prize at the Geneva International Competition in 1950 and the Amis de Orgue Bach Prize a year later, she then embarked on her career as a concert organist.

As a performer, keen to restore the organ to the mainstream of contemporary music-making, Alain revelled in the unique opportunities afforded by the instrument. She had a splendidly natural technique which underpinned a real sense of rhythm and a love of colour – and for more than half a century, she maintained a non-stop global career as a top-flight concert artist.

Prior to her American debut in 1961, the first of many appearances in this country came at the Royal Festival Hall in December 1960. While every intricate detail of Bach’s writing was beautifully shaped and carefully portrayed, critics noted her unfailing ability to draw new and varied sounds from an instrument. She seemed able to steer her way through countless chorale preludes without ever using the same combination of stops twice.

Seven years earlier, in February 1953, Alain had made her first commercial recording for the Erato label. Over the course of the next four decades, she would provide the company with a catalogue of organ recordings that few others could match. Reaching almost 300 in total, her output embraced virtually everything of significance ever composed for the instrument.

While equally alert to the charm of Mendelssohn or the thrills of Franz Liszt, Messiaen she played all too rarely. Her three complete recordings of the music of J S Bach won extensive plaudits from the critics. Likewise, her equally authoritative César Franck was brought excitingly to life on the glorious Cavaillé-Coll instrument of L’Église Saint Étienne, Caen.

Alain also found herself drawn to many newly minted creations. Notable first performances included Idyll d’Apocalypse by the Danish composer Ib Norholm and Concerto for Organ and Orchestra by her fellow countryman Christopher Chayne. Equally daunting were the challenges inherent in the magisterial Symphonie Avec Orgue by Jacques Charpentier.

As a much sought after teacher, her influence has been immense. She taught at the Rueil Malmaison Conservatoire, later becoming director of organ studies at the Conservatoire National de Région in Paris. Increasingly in demand as a jurist at international competitions, between 1956 and 1972 she also regularly lectured at the Haarlem Summer Academy of Organists.

Erudite and persuasive, Alain proved to be a fine writer, her elegant sleeve notes increasingly accompanying many of her recordings. While transcribing works for trumpet and organ, she also edited three volumes of Jehan’s organ works. In recent years she had been preparing Olivier’s compositions for publication.

Succeeding her father as organist of the parish church of St Germaine-en Laye in 1971, from 1965 until 1987 she served as a member of the Commission des Orgues des Monument Historiques. The recipient of numerous honours both at home and abroad, in 2012 she was promoted to the rank of Grand Officier in the order of the Légion d’Honneur.

Marie-Claire Geneviève Alain, concert organist: born St Germaine-en-Laye, Paris 10 August 1926; married 1950 Jacques Gommier (died 1992, one daughter, one son deceased); died Le Pecq, France 26 February 2013.