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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect