I read in The New York Times (A14) this morning that Marie-Claire Alain has died. My parents brought me to one of her recitals when I was young, an experience that enriched my life in several ways. In the years since then I’ve often listened to recordings of her work, but it was my childhood enjoyment of her recital that first piqued my interest in her CD’s.
Typically, we sat in the cheap seats at concerts, but for Alain my parents apparently splurged because we had excellent seats. I have a clear memory of watching her fingers and her pedal technique. This memory is probably the most detailed of any from the many concerts I attended with my parents.
Good seats matter. My husband splurged on great tickets for a Cleveland Orchestra concert for my 40th birthday. The experience saturated my senses: the orchestra filled my field of view, the concentrated sound enveloped me. It was thrilling. Of course, if the performance had not been superb, greater intensity would not have delivered greater pleasure.
So it was with Alain. Even though my listening skills were quite undeveloped, I think I responded unconsciously to qualities I would later come to appreciate explicitly. One is these is the cleanness of her playing, akin to the transparency for which the Cleveland Orchestra is famous. As an alto and a former French horn player, I especially like being able to hear the inner parts of the music. When these voices get submerged in a torrent of sound, I have to work harder to stay interested. For more on this aspect of Alain’s work, see David Roden’s comments.
Both Craig B. Whitney in the Times article and Roden wrote about Alain’s attitude toward composers, her determination to conform to their intentions, and her sense of wonder when playing an instrument JS Bach himself had played. This respect for the author of the music undoubtedly undergirds her care in balancing her performance so that all parts can be heard. But it also lent variety to her performances; Bach sounded different from Couperin. More than that, the subtle adjustments she’d make to carry out individual composers’ wishes enriched the result.
A good example is her work to understand what was in Bach’s mind in writing particular pieces. Whitney quoted her: “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.” Bach had a good understanding of Lutheran theology and it influenced his musical choices. He served the text. So did Alain.
The example that comes to mind doesn’t really have anything to do with her, but it illustrates the process. One of the finest choral conductors I’ve had the pleasure of singing under, Dallas M Young, was preparing us to perform “Crucifixus” from the “Credo” in Bach’s “B-Minor Mass.” Dallas had had the great pleasure of performing the work under Robert Shaw and shared with us some of what Shaw had taught them. Bach’s structuring of the piece—putting the Crucifixion at the exact center of the Creed—spoke to the centrality of the cross in Lutheran theology. More simply, in the final two words of the piece—“sepultus est” or “was buried”—Bach had us singing at the bottom of our ranges. In addition to the symbolism of this, it produces the physical effect of the voices being at their weakest. The result is to emphasize the enormity of what has just occurred, that Jesus was really dead, and for the duration of those notes, we don’t know he’s going to rise again. But, after the briefest of pauses, the music explodes, high and strong, in “Et resurrexit,” in accordance with the explosive importance of the Resurrection. Someone taught and inspired Shaw; he passed that on to Dallas; Dallas passed it on to us; and I sincerely hope those who heard us experienced something of the profundity of Bach’s accomplishment.
Music can help us understand theology more deeply and more memorably. Composers like Bach—a rare breed, to be sure—employ God-given ability. So do performers like Marie-Claire Alain. I’m grateful to her for sharing her immense talent. And I’m grateful to my parents for whatever scrimping and saving they may have had to do to give me a front row seat at her recital.