Marie-Claire Alain – Master Organist, Dies at 86
Her death was announced by the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where she was organist for 40 years.
Ms. Alain’s interpretations of Bach, François Couperin and Dieterich Buxtehude, precise yet engaging and colorful, were widely considered authoritative. Her 300 recordings include three separate ones on organs of different periods of the complete organ works of J. S. Bach.
She also recorded albums of Romantic composers like Mendelssohn, Lizst, César Franck and Louis Vierne, and she was devoted to the organ works of her oldest brother, Jehan Alain, a composer who was killed in action in the German invasion of France in 1940. Among her most popular albums were several she made with Maurice André of works for trumpet and organ.
She taught at the conservatory of Rueil-Malmaison and later at the Paris Conservatory, where she had studied after World War II with Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé, and later Gaston Litaize.
Daniel Roth, organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, who went to her as a young man to learn early-music performance, said in a telephone interview that unlike his other professors, most of them fearsome and intimidating, “she was a woman who always had a smile.” He added, “And she always regarded the composer, of whatever period, as the ultimate authority.”
Among her hundreds of other students are names like Guy Bovet, Wolfgang Rübsam, James David Christie, James Higdon, George C. Baker and Dame Gillian Weir. The list is a “who’s who of the present-day organ world,” as Michael Barone, host of American Public Media’s “Pipedreams” radio program, put it in a tribute.
After the release of her third series of the Bach complete works in 1994, Martin Anderson in the British quarterly The Organ asked her why she did it.
“It’s because of the instruments, the instruments above everything else, and the fine state to which they have been restored — and the fact that they are now accessible,” she told him. “These recordings use instruments from Bach’s time, and we know that Bach even played some of them — it’s an extraordinary feeling, to put your hands on the keyboard, knowing that he was there 250 years before you!”
Some, made by the 18th-century organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, were in the formerly Communist eastern part of Germany and not fully restored until after the country’s reunification in 1990, she said.
“And I have researched Bach himself, his life, his work. I think I have been able to get closer to the real meaning of the music,” she explained in 1994. “I have done a good deal of work on the theological aspects of Bach’s music, which is very important. It reveals an enormous amount of meaning. You can’t play a Bach chorale, for example, without knowing the liturgical text on which it is based, without knowing why it was written.”
She added, “I come from a musical family, and we played Bach virtually every evening, playing on the organ, singing cantatas — Bach was almost a family illness!”
Ms. Alain was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on Aug. 10, 1926, the youngest child in a family of musicians. She began assisting her father, Albert, at the console at the church of Saint-Germain at age 11 in 1937 and succeeded him there after he died in 1971.
Her professional career began in 1950 and ended in 2010 after she fell into decline following the death the previous year of her son, Benoît.
Her husband, Jacques Gommier, whom she married in 1950, died in 1992. Survivors include their daughter, Aurélie Gommier-Decourt, and six grandchildren.
Last year, the French government decorated Ms. Alain as a grand officer in the Legion of Honor.