Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Marie-Claire Alain, 1926-2013

Marie-Claire Alain, a towering figure of the organ world, has died at the age of 86. During the last fifty years she and Jean Langlais were the doyenne and doyen of French pedagogues, and many a leading British organist braved pre-Tunnel hovercraft trips to take part in her class. For the younger generation there were her US and UK masterclasses, a breath of fresh air in a stifling hothouse consumed with finding the next 16 year old Wunderkind to collect the FRCO with all the prizes, and unhealthy competition for the King’s and Christ Church organ scholarships. Not one for didactic instruction, her gift was thoroughly non-prescriptive demonstration which sought to patiently nurture latent – or indeed repressed – individuality. Alain did not teach the kind of classes where she had to polish up half a dozen Litanies, but if she had, no two performances would have sounded remotely the same.

It was however clear that she had mellowed in recent years; a development, at least judging by her Bach teaching, that could perhaps be pinpointed to her final integral recorded during the 1990s, HIP-influenced as it was, with curious extremes of tempi and an emotionally detached manner (magnificent highlights such as BWV 543 notwithstanding). I recall an interview with David Sanger in which he called her a ‘charming though quite dogmatic teacher’ – back then, entirely conceivable – and that side of her came to the fore in these recordings. Sanger himself was for decades a rite of pedagogical passage for British organists and his great wisdom and exactitude, not always forthcoming in equal measure, will be remembered in much the same way. Private lessons could be like root canal surgery and his Oundle classes nothing short of ritual humiliation, however well-meaning, as he indicated himself (‘some of the young people who come to Oundle really have very little idea. But hopefully they go away better able to play things properly [my emphasis]). By the time I encountered Marie-Claire, in 2004 or thereabouts, she seemed, without explicitly letting on, to have the measure of what was going on in the training of young British organists, geared as it was to note-perfect, mechanized trio sonatas calculated only to appeal to Stephen Cleobury come the fiercely contested King’s trials. To the Royal College of Organists, too, freedom in Bach meant one thing: freedom from error; with musicality counting for no more than it would in the notorious transposition exercises (a tone or semitone up or down, at sight). The Marie-Claire I played for seemed closer to the freer organist of the second integral, obsessed less with control than independence of mind. Fussily-maintained consistency of articulation in the trio sonatas bored her, and besides that nothing further about the creative pinnacle of Bach’s organ oeuvre needed to be said. She never contradicted other teachers.

Alain’s legacy as an organist and tireless advocate for her brother (and French Romantic school more generally) is no less formidable, though of the three-and-a-half Bach integrals, of which only the second and third are widely available, I find myself alternating regularly however much more I’m drawn to the second. The one constant I look for is the same personality she encouraged in others, as shown in this vivid first movement to the G major trio sonata:


The punctilious RCO examiner would doubtless clock her for those two faltering moments – one rushing, the other a dead cert for their favourite euphemistic phrase, ‘slight hesitancy’ – but everything about the performance simply sparkles. It is a salutary reminder of our primary duty to these trio sonatas, to bring them to life.

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