Born into a musical family, Jehan Ariste Alain (February 3, 1911 - June 20, 1940) has an ambiguous legacy. He died in battle during the early days of World War II without reaching the age of thirty. Like the English George Butterworth, he provokes a host of "what ifs." Outstandingly gifted as a performer and composer, he left a small but substantial pile of works, mainly for the organ.
Alain was the son of Albert Alain, one of the most influential organ builders and designers between the wars, as well as a composer and organist himself. He was also the brother of organist Marie-Claire Alain, and she has spoken of how he influenced her own playing. In the Twenties and Thirties he attended the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Paul Dukas and Jean Roger-Ducasse and organ with Marcel Dupré. He won premiers prix in harmony, fugue, and organ. His marriage in 1935, birth of his children, and military service interrupted his studies, and he quickly began to earn a living as an organist, including a stint as an organist in a synagogue. However, he also had written and gotten published his own compositions since the age of 18. His early compositions are mainly songs and piano works. One also finds a few chamber pieces and one orchestral scores (an orchestration of an organ work), but most writers agree that his great achievement resides in his organ music which includes such classics as his three chorales (Choral dorien, Choral cistercien, Choral phrygien), Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin, Litanies, Monodie, and 3 danses.
His music – harmonically complex, rhythmically alive, and somewhat influenced by the dances of North Africa – resembles that of André Jolivet and Olivier Messiaën, although there's little question of influence either way. ~ Steve Schwartz