Program Notes

JEHAN ALAIN (1911 – 1940)


Alain was born in a suburb of Paris into a family of prominent organists (father, sister, and brother), and his father even built a small organ in the living room for the children to practice on. He attended Paris Conservatoire, winning First Prize for organ, and his studies in composition with Paul Dukas won him the Prix des amis de l'orgue. During WWII, Alain was a dispatch motorcyclist along the front in the Eighth Motorised Armour Division of the French Army. On June 20th, 1940 he encountered and engaged, single-handedly, a German patrol at Le Petit-Puy, killing 16 enemy soldiers before being struck down.  Astonishingly, the Germans buried him with full military honors, Alain was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery. Meg Harper, our organist, writes:

“When the Christian soul no longer finds new words in its distress to implore God’s mercy, it repeats ceaselessly and with a vehement faith the same invocation. Reason has reached its limit. Alone, faith continues its ascent." These words are found in Jehan Alain’s personal manuscript for Litanies. Completed on August 15 of 1937 and first performed six months later, Litanies has since been a touchstone of the organ repertoire. Performed today [August 14, 2016], one day shy of its 79th anniversary, this work is just as potent as it was at its inception. Indeed, today’s political climate of uncertainty and destruction around the world bespeaks a distress like that which Alain references.

The work begins with a solo statement of a visceral theme that returns incessantly throughout the work. This theme appears later in many guises: homophonically with varying degrees of complexity in harmony, in combination with a counter-melody, sometimes pushing forward, at times hesitating. Through all this, the theme remains insistent. There is little doubt that this inexorable theme is a direct representation of the ascent of faith that Alain discusses above. Indeed, when the final sonority (A-flat minor superimposed on E-flat minor) sounds, Alain’s words ring true: "reason has reached its limit, and words cannot express either the distress of tragedy or the faith that must respond. The lack of harmonic resolution in this final chord expresses intense emotion that is beyond the realm of words.”

Program notes by David Yang