March 7, 2013
Last week the music world lost one of its great lights. There can hardly be an organist alive who has not been influenced by the work of Marie-Claire Alain — and by her rare personality.
I first encountered her directly when she stopped into an organ lesson that I was having with Paul Jenkins when I was a young student. She was to play a recital that evening on the instrument that I was having the lesson on and was having doubts that she wanted to play the Trois danses, by her brother Jehan, which were printed on the program. Mr. Jenkins suggested that she try some other Alain works on the instrument right then and there. By the time they finished, I had heard his sister and chief exponent play almost all the fairly slender catalogue of Jehan Alain. I suspected that my teacher had caused her to do that for my benefit, and I’ve never forgotten it.
About that same time, I was seated next to her at a rather ceremonious luncheon. This was soon after she had first recorded the complete organ works of Bach. Young and eager to say right things — or, at the very least, no very wrong ones — I congratulated her on the great accomplishment; whereupon she told me that plans were already underway for a second traversal of those works in future years. I remarked that it would be interesting to us all to see how her second take on that corpus would differ from her first. She looked moderately horrified at my faux pas: it seemed that it would be only for the sake of advancing technology that she would re-record, not for any development in her conception of the works! (This, however, was perhaps not quite consistent with her embarrassment at my letting her know that I knew a much earlier recording of some Bach works that she had done and about which she professed great embarrassment. They were not at all in her later style, but springing much more from her studies under Marcel Dupré.)
The next time I encountered her outside performance came years later when she was in New York on her way to play a concert in Yale’s Woolsey Hall. I was deputed by the powers at the Yale Music School (specifically, Charles Krigbaum) to show her around the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was a major show of paintings of Georges Seurat that she was eager to see. Little did I expect that one of the privileges of seeing them with her would include — besides the anticipated familiarity with scenes — exclamations like “Oh, that man was a great friend of my father” or “My aunt used to have tea with that lady weekly.”
After we finished with Seurat, I took her to see the 18th-century Appleton organ in the hall where the armor is kept. After she had played it for a while, I said “This American instrument is of course quite different from your organs back home” (thinking of the boldness of what we call French-Classical tonal characteristics — not to mention the symphonic developments of the 19th century). “Not at all,” she replied, “You can find many instruments like this in French villages. They’re just not the sort of thing you Americans go to visit.” (A pattern was being confirmed of my always saying more or less foolish things to her; but I have to say that her manner minimized any embarrassment that I might otherwise have felt. And, besides, I was always learning something from her.)
Most of all, many of us will always value the role that she played in bringing the vitality of 17th- and 18th-century French organ repertory into our lives, as well as the many unforgettable performances of what surely must have been her trademark in the estimation of audiences around the world: