Peter Hall’s talk during the streamed Communion service on the morning of Sunday 24th May was one with which I was able to identify in a number of respects. Peter noted that it was the two hundred and eighty-second anniversary of what has become known as the famous preacher, John Wesley’s evangelical conversion; an event at which Wesley himself noted he felt his heart strangely warmed. Some of the facts and figures surrounding his ministry are extraordinary. He travelled on horseback some 250,000 miles to preach – at Peter’s mention of this I remarked to Anne that this is slightly greater than the distance of the Moon from the Earth! Peter obviously finds great inspiration from Wesley, as his mention of this anniversary and what it means to him revealed.
Anniversaries have always seemed to me to be important markers and reminders of events in the lives of people who have inspired us. Because of my interest in the organ and its music, one such is the organist and composer Jehan Alain. He was born on 3rd February 1911 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the eldest of four children in a particularly musical family. His father, Albert, was a church organist and composer who had studied with the leading French organists of his day. He was also a keen amateur organ builder who, over decades constructed an instrument in his own home on which his children and pupils learned. Jehan’s younger sister Marie-Claire Alain, the distinguished organist and lifelong champion of her brother’s music, noted that the house was full of music; the older children teaching the younger ones, who in turn stimulated their elder siblings with their enthusiasm. Jehan was not a child prodigy, but soon became an accomplished organist who was able to deputise for his father, playing for services from the age of eleven. He later studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and was awarded prizes for harmony and fugue, but was sometimes frustrated by the rather formal teaching.
Jehan’s strong Christian faith is revealed in a number of his works, the most famous of which is almost certainly the organ piece Litanies, composed in 1937. At the head of the score he wrote, “When the Christian soul in distress can no longer find any new words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats the same invocation over and over again in a blind faith. The limits of reason are reached. Faith alone continues upward.” He also noted about its performance, “It must create the impression of an ardent supplication. Prayer is not a lament, but an overpowering tornado flattening everything in its way. It’s also an obsession: you must fill people’s ears with it – and God’s ears too!” An irrepressible rhythmic drive propels the piece and, unlike many of Alain’s works, which tend to conclude quietly, it finishes on an astonishingly forceful chord.
His most extended work, composed towards the end of his life, is Trois Danses, a sort of poem of life. The three movements, played without a break are, “Joies” (Joy), “Deuils” (Mourning) and “Luttes” (Struggles). It was intended as a symphonic poem for orchestra, but has come down to us only in two manuscripts, one for piano, with a few notes on orchestration, the other, a transcription for organ.
At the outbreak of WWII, Alain enlisted in the French army as a dispatch rider (he was a keen mechanic and motorcyclist). He saw the entire Flanders campaign, joined the evacuation to England from Dunkerque, returned as a volunteer for a mission in the last battle on the Loire and was killed near Saumur five days before the French withdrew from the War. He had been assigned to reconnoitre the German advance on Saumur. While on patrol, nearing a bend in the road, he spotted a troop of German soldiers and, abandoning his motorcycle, opened fire on them, killing sixteen before being shot himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery
He had been working on the orchestration of Trois Danses at this time and, as Marie-Claire recounts, the sheets of music blew away from his side-car and into the fields. These “strange papers” were played with by Anjou peasant children, until his work completely disappeared, “washed away by the rain and torn to pieces by those innocent hands.” Fortunately, we have the organ transcription, and it is in this form that the work is known and performed. The sub-title of the middle movement “Duils” is “Dance funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héröique” (Funeral dance to honour the memory of a hero), which, as Marie-Claire notes, if not a coincidence, seems to be a curious and almost disturbing premonition.
Even in its organ transcription (and perhaps for that reason – Alain composed unerringly idiomatically for the instrument) the powerfully searing climax of “Duils” is overwhelming. The movement nevertheless ends with a desolate monody, and it is only at the conclusion of the final movement, “Luttes” that there is any sense of release – the struggles end in triumph.
On June 20th it will be eighty years to the day since Alain’s untimely death at the age of just twenty-nine. I shall listen to Trois Danses, Litanies and some of his other pieces, and ponder the life and work of a man whose last diary entry stated unequivocally “I believe in God and Jesus Christ” – a credo very much affirmed in his music.