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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Arsene Wenger reacts during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Swansea
footballMan United and Arsenal meet on Saturday with both clubs this time languishing outside the top four
News
i100BBC political editor Nick Robinson had a lot of explaining to do
Life and Style
Nappies could have advice on them to encourage mothers and fathers to talk to their babies more often
newsTalking to babies can improve their language and vocabulary skills
Sport
Tony Bellew holds two inflatable plastic sheep at the weigh-in for his rematch with Nathan Cleverly
boxingGrudge match takes place on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson at PS1
arts + ents
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

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines