The Organ

Marie-Claire Alain: Back to Bach

Marie-Claire Alain has just released her third complete recording of the organ music of J. S. Bach. Martin Anderson asked her why.

From someone else it might seem like hubris. Three recordings of the complete Bach organ music from the same musician? Marie-Claire Alain -- who in any case is the least self-important of women -- see no reason to apologise.

"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. These recordings uses 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! Rtha, for instance, which is ten kilometres from Leipzig, was a very prestigious place, and Bach certainly went there; Mendelssohn used to go there frequently, too."

It is obviously from the presentation of Erato's splendid set that the instruments themselves have been a driving force in the project: they adorn the box, the jewel case, the discs themselves -- all beautifully designed. Silbermann organs seem to have a very prominent position in the new Bach cycle.

"Yes, they do. Silbermann was a close friend of Bach's and they worked very closely together for many years. There's a Silbermann at Freiberg, for example, that we are sure Bach played on. It's the first big organ Gottfried Silbermann built after finishing his studies in Alsace. The thing about Silbermann organs is that you can combine any registration you like and they all sound equally well. For the Hamburg Bach we also used some Schnitger organs in Holland, where there are some very well preserved instruments in their original state; and the Treutmann organ in Goslar, which has a graver, more serious, fleshier sound, was well suited to the works from the end of Bach's life. Luckily, the Silbermann organs in eastern Germany hadn't been tampered with too much during the time that Romanticism was in vogue. There was a certain respect for these instruments, they were often in small towns, and because of their admirable construction they have survived right up till now. During the time of the Communist regime there wasn't any money to restore them and so they were allowed to stay as they were. The church in East Germany formed a small kernel of resistance and took care to look after the buildings and the instruments required for worship, even during the War. Some Silbermann organs were destroyed by bombing, unfortunately, but people realised right after the War how important these instruments were and that they should be allowed to fall into disrepair. Take Rtha again -- it's a little village, and fairly run-down, but there are two Silbermann organs there, one in each of the two churches, and both of them are in a good state of repair. So there are birds nesting here and there in the walls, but the organs work. I visited the Silbermann organ in Freiberg before the Wall came down. It was in a church where they had installed partitions to make a school and was under a sheet of plastic. It was in a terrible state, but I managed to play all of the Bach Passacaglia on it. There was dust all over the place and many of the notes were out of key -- but it still played, because it was so well made. Since then, I'm glad to say, it has been restored."

"When I began recording this new Bach cycle, in 1986, it wasn't with the idea of doing another complete recording -- but then each set began like that. When I began my first intgrale, in 1959, it was with the idea of making a few records: we did some of the Trios and the Toccatas and Fugues, and it went down so well that we did the lot, finishing in 1968. I learned a quite a bit when I was doing that cycle, and in the meantime an enormous amount of study into early music was being undertaken, so I recorded the second cycle in 1975-78. I never imagined I'd do a third complete Bach. What happened was that I was allowed access to the organ in Groningen, which had been newly restored, and I made a recital disc, for pleasure. Then I made two other discs, and I thought I should continue. Until that point I had been playing on fine copies, since the originals weren't good enough: the keys were uneven, the wind pressure was uneven, they were difficult to tune, and so I hadn't wanted to record on an early instrument. But since then the old organs have been looked after: the mechanisms have been improved, they have been tuned, they have been restored with questions of authenticity very much in mind. So now we can play on the real thing."

Do the organs themselves condition her approach to the music?

"Certainly. The manner in which the sound is produced is very different, as is the way in which the wind is supplied. These are instruments with very strong personalities. When I was young, you could play almost anything on the same organ. Those days are gone. Now we look for an organ with very particular characteristics that are especially suited to a given style of music. For example, I didn't choose the same organ for the works that Bach wrote at the end of his life as for the ones he wrote when he was young. He too evolved during his life, as did his music: the relationship between the key and the pipe is different, the way you open the pipe is different, the way the wind enters the pipe -- all that changes your approach to the music. And I studied these instruments very thoroughly before choosing the ones I wanted to record on. Some of the organs I visited were good but still not quite what I wanted, and with others it was a coup de foudre. My style, too, is much purer; and these organs have to be treated with much respect: you can't force them to play too fast."

"This third cycle is also much more musicological in approach, since we know much more now about performance practice in Bach's day and of other composers of his time: different position of the hands on the keyboard, different fingering, accentuation.... Our entire approach has to be rethought in terms of what we have since discovered. I have discussed it with colleagues, obviously, I have listened to harpsichordist friends, violinists, singers. We all share our research. We now know that the way this music was played at the beginning of the century was according to the standards of the Romantic period. We couldn't go on like that; we had to rediscover the criteria of Bach's day. Well, now we have found them."

So how does she feel about her earlier recordings?

"I never listen to them! If I have to, I don't detest them, but there are lots of things I wouldn't do like that again. My first intgrale was more instinctive; my second was much more considered; and my third has the benefit of a long life of work and of research.

"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. 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. The text deals with suffering, with the feelings that are made explicit in the cantatas. Even in the so-called secular works, you find means of expression that are also found in the cantatas -- this is Bach's religious vocabulary. In the Passacaglia, for example, which is originally a dance-based form, there are very many references to chorale themes which recur every three variations, giving the Passacaglia a rhythm of three. There are 21 variations in the Passacaglia -- three times seven! The Fugue of the Prelude and Fugue in G major, too, has the same theme as the cantata 'Ich hatte viel Bekmmernis'; and the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547, uses Christmas themes, one of which refers to the Magi coming to visit Christ in the manger (from Cantata No. 65). You have to know all Bach, but you then find a sort of expressive constant in his work. Suffering can be expressed by chromaticism, by repeated notes; he expresses joy by trills, Christmas by a descending figure -- the descent of Christ to earth; he expresses the Passion by musical patterns in the shape of a cross. There's an entire religious and numerical symbolism there. Number symbolism was quite common in the music of the period -- you get it in Schtz, in Scheidt -- but in Bach it's much more marked than in his contemporaries.

"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!"

Marie-Claire's "a musical family" is something of an understatement -- the Alain family is almost a twentieth-century French equivalent of the Bachs: Marie-Claire's father, Albert, was a composer, as were her two brothers, Olivier, who died only a few years ago [1994], and the better-known Jehan, killed near Saumur in 1940 at the head of a motorbike patrol. Though he was only 29, Jehan left around 130 works. There is a "family album" on the Swiss label Gallo -- CD-683 -- with Marie-Claire playing music by her father and Jehan, and she made two LPs of music by Jehan, in 1970-71. Marie-Claire would like to go back to it.

"I have been working on it a lot, looking at the manuscripts and thinking about performing style. But I still have to find the organ that will allow me to play the music to my complete satisfaction. The music is very rich, savoureux, a bit brutal, sometimes rather bad-tempered. I can now do something more faithful to what he wanted. Jehan was quite a bit older than me, but he taught me everything. He was a very good big brother to me, and it was from him that I learned music. I acquired the repertoire by ear, from listening to him play. My own playing owes a lot to him, too. We had an organ at home, and I used to hear him working on the entire repertoire. I have very vivid recollections of him playing Franck, Vierne, Bach and many other composers, as well as his own music, of course. We had the impression that he was living at 200 an hour. It's often the case that people who die young live three times faster than everyone. And Jehan Alain had such an incredible vitality that people who get involved in his music quickly feel passionate about it, even now, a long time after his death. You can't remain indifferent to the personality and the music of Jehan Alain."

Marie-Claire reaches across to show me a drawing by her brother, a confident Thurber-style cartoon. Then out comes a fat file some letters, all illustrated -- landscapes, buildings, people -- with astonishingly capable draftsmanship. We have changed the subject, but this is one I am going to have to come back to once Marie-Claire has found the right organ.

Martin Anderson