Litanies – Jehan Alain (1911-1940)
view video here
Jehan Alain was a near contemporary of the great composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, possibly rivalling his vision and genius, but Alain’s life was cut short when he was killed in action at the age of 29, just five days before France withdrew from World War II. He had received his first organ lessons from his father, and then progressed to the Paris Conservatoire. He became a brilliant keyboard player and a compulsive composer, who saw music as revelatory of states of the soul, and who was drawn to music’s power to create a sense of mystery rather than express emotions.
Litanies, this Sunday’s postlude in church, began as an organ piece called Phantasmagorie from which Alain drew some material for the later work which he originally called Supplications. The plainsong phrase which opens the music is repeated continually, propelled by a locomotive rhythm to an ecstatic climax. Alain once wrote about how to play Litanies. “You must create an impression of passionate incantation. Prayer is not a lament but a devastating tornado, flattening everything is its way. It is also an obsession. You must fill men’s ears with it, and God’s ears too! If you get to the end without feeling exhausted you have neither understood [Litanies] nor played it as I would want it.”
The score itself is headed with a quotation which can be related to the death of one of Alain’s sisters in 1937, the year in which it was written: “When the Christian soul is in distress and cannot find any fresh words to implore God’s mercy, it repeats the same prayer unceasingly with overwhelming faith. The limit of reason is past. It is faith alone which propels its ascent.”
Another of Alain’s sisters, Marie-Claire, the organist in the recording linked above, was a superb musician and life-long champion of her brother’s music. I heard her play this piece, along with others by her brother, at a recital in Los Angeles many years ago. What a treat it was to witness this connection to the life and work of a brilliant musician whose life was cut short far too early by the tragedy of war.