Sound Fountain

Marie-Claire Alain - Notre Dame de l'orgue





Though Marie-Claire Alain is the grand lady of the organ, she is not a very tall person and one wonders how she succeeds in handling such a colossal instrument consisting of pipes, bellows, hoses, manuals and complex registers. Nothing seems impossible for Marie-Claire Alain. She manages a sober canon or a complex fugue from the baroque repertory as well as a heavy, sonorous symphony from the romantic organ literature.

It is one Monday morning in September of 1988. We have agreed to meet in the lounge of hotel "Le lion d'or" in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Marie-Claire has much work to do during the three days of the traditional "organ month" in Haarlem, where organists from around the world meet and discuss and attend masterclasses. I meet her and her husband - who has been her manager for many years now - and we engage in an interesting conversation.

RAB: I have browsed the catalogs and I found that your first record was a recording from 1958. Is that correct?

MCA: Oh, that was much earlier, in 1954. In 1958 was the first stereo gramophone record.

RAB: That record from '58 was released in the United States by the Haydn Society. That one from 1954 also?

MCA: Yes, there was an agreement between Erato and the Haydn Society. That was the first ever record of Erato. I believe that Jean-François Paillard made the second one. My disc was called "Pièces inédites de Bach" (Unpublished Pieces by Bach - Ed.). Those were pieces which had not yet been put on record. At that time we had many famous records of Helmut Walcha, of André Marchal, of Fernando Germani.


We have checked the catalogs looking for pieces for that recording and as I was a little debutante, I was told that we would take those pieces which had not been recorded before. Regrettably one cannot do that nowadays. (She laughs.)

RAB: Have you known Helmut Walcha?

MCA: Not personally. I have often listened to his recordings, which I admired very much.

RAB: It was he who in the nineteen fifties...

MCA: On the record market it was he who was admired the most.

RAB: And Jeanne Demessieux?

MCA: I have known her well. I even met her here in Haarlem. The first year I came to Haarlem to give lessons.

RAB: You are here in the framework of "the organ month". ("De orgelmaand", Ed.)

MCA: I am here for three days and will give three courses to organists concerning the works of my brother Jehan Alain. And tomorrow night I will give a concert in the Bavo, the big church, on the famous organ of Christian Müller.

Marie-Claire Alain was born in 1927 in Saint Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines, France), the birthplace of another great French artist, Claude Debussy. She studied organ with the great and famous Marcel Dupré at the "Conservatoire national supérieur de Paris". She won many international prizes and awards and is regarded as the eminent performer of the early music for organ. She recorded compositions ranging from Buxtehude to Messiaen including the complete works for organ of Johann Sebastian Bach. She recorded an impressive discography. Precision and personal freedom are the traits of her character and of her musicianship. Her convictions concerning style, her lively spirit and her sense for analysis and study make her also an admired teacher.
1976 marks the year in which her millionth record was sold. In the same year she received the Buxtehude Prize from the city of Lübeck. In 1980 she was awarded the "Leonie Sonning Foundation Music Prize" from the City of Copenhagen. For her outstanding Liszt recording she received the "Budapest International Liszt Record Grand Prize" in 1987. She does not restrict herself to the music of the baroque era. On the contrary. She made recordings of works by Mozart, Fauré, Poulenc, Jehan Alain, Handel, Saint-Saëns and Vivaldi.


RAB: There is often talk about the "nouveau style" in the interpretations of the music from the baroque. You recorded two times the complete works of Bach...

MCA: Yes, even three times. In fact not three times completely. Recently I have made other records because the musical interpretation is a continuous evolution. You just asked about the new style. Here in Haarlem we started to elaborate those problems of the execution. Many organists have always been part of that movement - from a distance or from close by. And for me it is the start to renew my way of playing; I have always informed myself without loosing myself in that movement completely. That was important for me.

RAB: You play Bach completely different than...

MCA: ...Than in the nineteen fifties and sixties.

RAB: Is that a big difference for you?

MAC: Yes, everything had to be altered. Not just the finger notation, even the way you hold your hands. That is difficult if you are already a performing artist.

RAB: You were used to the traditional way of playing.

MCA: I was used to it, but I did not always agree with what had been taught to us. For me it has not been difficult to search for new ways. I felt the necessity of it, I had a need for change.

RAB: Don't you think it can restrict the interpretation?

MCA: Not at all, on the contrary, it gives more ease if you master the difficulty - the so called difficulty - of the finger notation. The music has been written in that finger notation. And many passages which seemed to be very difficult to us, now became very easy. I, knowing the two ways of playing, maintain that the new way gives more comfort. Many people had to make a clear effort. But if you master it, than this new method is much easier.

The magnificent Müller organ of the Great or
St. Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Picture taken from CNR SPES 8201, Albert de Klerk playing
Fantasy in F (Mozart) and Variations on
"Our Father, Thou Art in Heaven" -
"Vater unser im Himmelreich" (Mendelssohn).

The complete works for organ of J.S. Bach were released on 24 LPs in a beautiful cassette, including an additional LP featuring an introduction and an interview with the artist.


RAB: Can the rhythmic movement change because of it?

MCA: French music was always played with a different rhythm. And for us, the French, the rhythmic movement gets the same suppleness which means a certain freedom in relation to the score.

RAB: Do you have contacts with musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt - the well known renewer - and Ton Koopman?

MCA: I do not know Harnoncourt personally. I have often listened to his performances. Ton Koopman I do know personally. We both make recordings for Erato and we have made a recording of works by Francis Poulenc. He played the Harpsichord Concerto and I played the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion.

RAB: Do you like Poulenc a lot? In the beginning I thought that you were for baroque music, period.

MCA: No, not just baroque. I have also an interest for the nineteenth century. And the first half of the twentieth century.

RAB: What is the most modern work you play?

MCA: Oh, I stop at 1950 and at the time I have taken works on the repertory for which I now, regrettably, do not have the occasion to perform. In fact one has to be a specialist if one wants to perform contemporary music. I do not have the time to specialize in that area.

RAB: Coming back to Bach. You have lived with him for so many years.

MCA: Yes, sure.

RAB: You are married of course, and yet...

MCA: ...Let's say that it is sublimated love.

RAB: What do you like about him?

MCA: The balance, being a total master of the construction of the instrument. Bach has written the most beautiful music for organ regarding the intellectual, mechanical and spiritual aspects. There is a miraculously beautiful spiritual side.

RAB: And that is the emotion?

MCA: That is the emotion.

RAB: What don't you like about him? Is he severe at times?

MCA: He is sometimes hard, yes, and sometimes he has a tendency to be too long, and sometimes a tendency to be too theoretical. In the late works there are parts which are somewhat difficult for the listener. Then he is far away from us, his spirit has attained such a virtuosity that it does not reach us. But if you are able to follow, it is beautiful. He has - like all composers - written works that are very good and works that are a little less good. But despite this all the lesser good of Bach is always better than the best of many other composers.

RAB: What are the compositions you love most?

MCA: Of his complete works? Listen, the great compositions naturally. I have a special liking for the Fantasia and Fugue in G, for the Great Prelude in E, for the Fugue, and I have a weakness for the Trio Sonatas. Those were on my first popular record of which hundreds of thousands were sold. I find that I have an affinity playing the trios - that was the first record of my complete Bach.

RAB: But you also love Buxtehude.

MCA: Yes, sure!

RAB: Shortly two CDs will be released...

MCA: They have already been issued in France. I have played on a very beautiful organ in Groningen; I try to pronounce it correctly.


Marie-Claire Alain's repertoire spans from the works of the mysterious Nicolas de Grigny (from around 1730) to the spiritual compositions of Olivier Messiaen, and including Widor, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc.
RAB: Has Buxtehude written as much as Bach?

MCA: No, not as much, but it is nevertheless a sizable oeuvre, and it explains much about the youth of Bach. In any case he has had a great influence on Bach. And Buxtehude is music with which you can allow yourself a lot of freedom which you cannot permit yourself with Bach. Because Buxtehude is an improviser, he fantasizes. And it is music to entertain yourself.

RAB: Do you intend to record the complete works of Buxtehude?

MCA: No, I did record it completely once. But now I have selected works which I consider the most beautiful. I had that privilege. This is sufficient for me at the moment.

RAB: Another great improviser is César Franck. Is he also a favorite of yours?

MCA: I like to play him under certain conditions. It is clear that his improvisation is much more controlled. Yet Franck has a style which is typically French and which I do sense in a natural way.

Marie-Claire Alain playing César Franck on the Tucek (Kutná Hora)/Voit (Durlach) organ in Smetena Hall in Prague in 1967 (Supraphon SUA ST 50823).

The impressive organ of St. Laurens church in Alkmaar, restored by "Flentrop Orgelbouw".
Picture from 'Het Beste uit AudiOpinie'
Copyright Flentrop Organ Builders.


RAB: In what way did you learn about the organ in your youth?

MCA: It came through family circumstances. I did not choose the organ. I was born in a family of musicians.

RAB: Was there a moment when you got acquainted with the organ and you said to yourself: "This is the instrument I want to play"?

MCA: As everybody at home played the organ, I initially found it boring to become an organist. And I wanted to do something else. But that always brought me back to the organ.

RAB: You must know Holland very well. There are many organs here?

MCA: Yes, there are and I have come here a great number of years - almost thirty years, no, it is exactly thirty years - and I have been in Haarlem many times.

RAB: Are there organs of which you think: Ah, these are made especially for me?

MCA: There are many beautiful organs. I have not seen the organ of St. Laurens church in Alkmaar since its restoration. But I would like to go there very much. Yes, and the organ in Groningen is very musical. There are so many. The Netherlands are very rich in beautiful organs.

RAB: And also in Denmark?

MCA: Especially in the nineteen sixties many organs were restored. But Holland made a great effort and is much richer now.

RAB: Your producer/recording technician is Yolanta Skura. Did you always work with her.

MCA: No, I work with her since 1978. Before then it was a Dane, Peter Willemoës.

RAB: Is between these two a different way of recording?

MCA: Yes, because fashion has also changed. In the nineteen sixties we made recordings which had a lot of presence, but were a little aggressive. And that is recognized now. And today recordings are made which are more "softer" and are made from a larger distance to find the natural acoustics of the church. We always work with an artificial stereo head (dummy head, Ed.). These are recordings which have not been manipulated. And sometimes we look for hours for the best position of the artificial head with microphones to obtain the best sound of the organ. In this way we get a recording which is completely natural.

RAB: When a trial recording has been made and also when the actual recording was made, do you listen also and give your opinion?

Disque numérique ERA 9266:
Bach BWV 565, 578, 593, 542, 582
Marie-Claire Alain aux grandes orgues
Schwenkedel de la Collégiale de Saint-Donat


MCA: Yes, sure, I give my opinion and say if I find "my organ", yes or no.

RAB: You say "my organ". But when you play you sit on the organ bench. That is a different position than that of the microphones.

MCA: Sure. But after so many years I have learned how the various organs do sound. I also listen when others are playing. In one way or another one has to take into account how your playing sounds in a church. Sometimes I also listen to the tapes in order to know how the different manuals sound.

RAB: What is your opinion about digital recordings?

MCA: Digital, that is very beautiful. That is the best. The CD is for the organ much better than the vinyl disc.

RAB: What are your plans?

MCA: There is a bunch of CDs from me which will be released. One with work by Olivier Messiaen - La nativité du Seigneur and Le banquet céleste - and new recordings with Masses of François Couperin as a follow up of my recordings from 1962. They have already been made and will probably be released in December or the beginning of next year. Messiaen is a giant in the music field and this year he will be eighty. He still composes and his music is always lively. It is music that speaks, that sings, that gives a lot, though he is at times somewhat systematic. But he has a miraculous inspiration.

Marie-Claire Alain is also a devoted harpsichordist. She played the complete concertos for three and four harpsichords together with Robert Veyron-LaCroix, Anne Marie Beckensteiner and Olivier Alain. In Germany these recordings were released on the Christophorus label.

RAB: It took some years before he really became known.

MCA: That is the ordeal of many composers. But now that he is so old, he is recognized as the great French composer he is.

RAB: Do you still play another instrument?

MCA: Yes, harpsichord.

RAB: But that is for...

MCA: ...That is for my pleasure.

RAB: And if you would not have chosen the organ, would you have taken up another instrument?

MCA: No, for no other instrument do I have an affinity.

RAB: Do you like other musical expressions, like jazz or...

MCA: Yes, jazz! I do not like rock.

RAB: Is jazz mood music to you?

MCA: I can not mention titles, but I like to listen with pleasure to good jazz from the years nineteen twenty and thirty, New Orleans.

RAB: And other genres, like opera for instance?

MCA: Sure. Yes... you asked me if I had not chosen the organ, what then... then I probably would have become a singer. Singing is the most beautiful human expression. It is a model for everything.

RAB: Je vous remercie infiniment Madame.

After I have thanked her for the interesting conversation and for the time she made free, her husband gives me a recent picture and I ask her if she will permit me to put this heading above the article: "Notre Dame de l'orgue. Marie-Claire Alain"...if that is alright?
She smiles as if she, unexpectedly, receives a medal. She is not just a great organist, our dear lady of the organ.

The elder brother of Marie-Claire, Jehan Alain, who at 29 years of age was killed during his military service in 1940, was a talented organist and composer who wrote many religious works for organ.

Transcribed from the original tape of the interview in French. Text: Rudolf A. Bruil

It was announced on February 28th, 2013, that Marie-Claire Alain had passed away on February 26, 2013

Marie-Claire Alain (10 August 1926 – 26 February 2013)


This interview was first published in September 1988 in AudiOpinie.
Page first published on the web in July, 2007.


Audio & Music Bulletin
Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1988-2008 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors