Today marks the anniversary of the death of Jehan Alain, one of the most interesting and enigmatic French composers of the first half of the twentieth century. To me, Alain’s unique musical sensibility draws comparison with two other composers; the free-spirited, swirling exoticism and spontaneous evocations of feeling suggest Alexander Scriabin, while the introspective, at times almost mystical nature of the music (particularly in his sense of pacing and remarkable use of melody) brings to mind the deep intensity of Alain’s great contemporary, Charles Tournemire. Alain has been on my mind a great deal lately, particularly as i’ve recently finished work on a lengthy electronic piece composed in Alain’s memory. Titled Night Liminal, it’ll be released on CD in the not-too-distant future; more information about that soon. But to commemorate today, here’s a recording of one of Alain’s most fascinating compositions, the Trois Danses, originally composed for piano in 1937, when Alain was 26 years old, and arranged for organ two years later. Alain also began making an orchestral arrangement of the work but the manuscript was famously sucked from the carriage of a moving train, and tragically never recovered.
None of the Trois Danses is overtly dance-like; indeed, despite the title of the first, ‘Joies’ (Joys), Alain begins the work with utter restraint, a sombre figure rising and falling with no discernible sense of momentum. Even when he kick-starts the tempo, though, it’s with low ostinati in 7/8 metre, and even these halt before long to allow the opening figure to rise and fall again. This alternation gradually becomes merged in an intriguing episode that feels both fast and slow simultaneously, a quick epicentre with slower chords moving around it. But it’s the deliciously weird episode that follows that’s most fascinating; Alain suddenly switches to a bare, elliptical melody which he gradually adorns with more and more bizarre figurations that whirl high above. Once again the opening figure returns, and the music sinks into a very soft, meditative melodic trance, very typical of the 20th century French organ school, bringing the movement to a surprisingly muted end, concluding with a strange, half-heard clarinet in the far distance.
The second Danse, ‘Deuils’ (Mourning), begins de profundis, an ominous, throbbing melody undulating from the depths of the pedal board. It has an organum flavour, and its simple, highly repetitive nature establishes the tone of the movement as a whole (and, to some extent, all three of them). There’s a real sense of brooding here, a black, obsessive grief that, although attaining some kind of energy, continues to move in a cyclical, somewhat stagnant manner. Alain allows some incredibly fragile melodies to emerge from the shimmering air (surrounded by the numinous pounding of the 32-foot stop), but they too have a dogged quality, only slightly lightened by their oblique sense of direction. Later, an extended collection of floating melodies casts a more positive light, but the ending – another solo melody — is hard to gauge, its inscrutable line closed with a pedal full stop. The same year that Alain composed the Trois Danses, his sister Odile died while mountaineering in the Alps; when one considers that Alain himself suggested this powerful central piece could be played independently under the title Danse funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héroïque (Funeral dance to honour a heroic memory), a connection isn’t hard to find. The more one listens to ‘Deuils’, the less measured it seems, and one realises there’s a dark agony lurking beneath.
The brief final Danse certainly lives up to its title, ‘Luttes’ (Struggles – again bringing Scriabin to mind); what Alain creates is practically a brawl, the belligerents being a collection of contrasting melodic fragments, which are heard at the start. Ostensibly, it builds in solidity pretty quickly, but not in substance, the inner conflict taking place between these different ideas preventing any of them from coming into the foreground. Sooner than expected, the music is shoe-horned into a coda, a single idea stated almost matter-of-factly, with heavy pedal confirmations. Considering how we got here, it all sounds rather too neat a conclusion, but Alain pulls out the rug at the last moment, closing the work with a series of smudged chordal blasts and a leftfield final cadence, seemingly coming out of nowhere and leaving one wondering whether the piece really has finished.
Jehan Alain’s life was cut short in 1940 just as abruptly as the Trois Danses, in an extraordinarily courageous engagement in World War II (for which he was posthumously awarded the Croix de guerre). These three remarkable movements—among the best of the 20th century organ repertory—testify powerfully to how innovative and individual was Alain’s compositional voice; on this anniversary of his death, perhaps they can serve as his own ‘Danse funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héroïque’.
This performance, from Good Friday 2009, was given by Daniel Hyde during the King’s Easter Festival.
A facinating composer, thanks very much for the chance to hear a modern interpretation – I only have recordings made by his sister. I think his variations on a theme by Janequin is one of the most striking pieces I’ve ever heard.
Thanks for the comment Mark – i don’t know the Variations you mentioned, so thanks also for the recommendation!