The music of Jehan Alain (1911-1940) actually derives from many of the influences common to French progressive composers of his day. In the aftermath of Debussy, Alain likewise became obsessed with Medieval plainsong and its parallel harmonies, especially when he had opportunity to play on one of the many Medieval pipe organs in France. Similar to the composers known as “Les six,” he found American jazz music and its rhythms a compelling source. He also turned to what was then still an exotic world in the Orient, although instead of Debussy’s studies in Japanese music or the Hindu musical elements adapted by Messiaen, Alain often fashioned his melodies after Arabic music, as found in the Andalusian province of Spain or even Northern Africa. Unlike the contemporaries of his day, he approached music almost like Bruckner did, playing his ideas out on the pipe organ, testing carefully the sounds of the different registrations, and holding chords out seemingly for indefinite periods of time, but ultimately envisioning the final version of his composition for orchestra.
All these things are present in Alain’s Three Dances, although it should take special standing as his final work, even if not entirely completed. In fact, each of the three movements is so intricately related to the events of the composer’s short life, a biographical deconstruction serves as the best way to explain this deceptively complicated music.
He wrote the first two movements shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The third and final dance was written while the French Army had been mobilized and was awaiting invasion by Germany. Alain served the military as a skilled motorcyclist, but was eventually killed during a firefight, two days before the 1940 armistice between France and Germany was signed.
As the story goes, he originally wanted to orchestrate Three Dances, but all his sketches were lost on the battlefield with his death. The version for pipe organ only survives because he mailed it to a friend the month before his death, only weeks before the German invasion.
The first dance, “Joy” (Joies), begins in a parallel Medieval plainchant style, exploring carefully the contours of a simple melodic gesture. Alain admitted to friends that he struggled with the complexities of his rhythms and how he notated them, which is perhaps imperceptible to the listener. The plainchant then acts as a ritornello, returning after complex development sections explore dense textures and the various registrations and antiphonal capabilities of the organ.
Musicologist Aurélie Decourt, who is also Alain’s niece, even believes the second dance, “Mourning” (Deuils), prophesied Alain’s own heroic death. Although funeral music does not normally lend itself to dancing, Alain’s conception of the abstract expressive powers of dance, which went beyond what words could do, played an especially important role in musically depicting sorrow. Another version of the work for string quartet, timpani, and organ carries the title “Sarabande.”
Decourt explains that the final dance, “Fight” (Luttes), depicts those final years of Alain’s life in which he trained and prepared for the military conflict to come:
“Here he confides in us all of his soul, divided among an unbounding joy of life (Joies), a dramatic foreknowledge of his own destiny (Deuils: Funeral dance to honor a heroic memory), and the terrible struggle for life that was his existence during the last two years that preceded his death (Luttes).”
Keeping in mind this is not the first time composers have been appreciated by others as prophets, the listener must still certainly weigh all these biographical elements concretely, determining if Three Dances actually is a memoir of Alain’s final years.
In the end, all three dances borrow from a very similar musical language established in the first dance, maintaining a balance between sections of simple melody and contrasting sections of sinuous complexity. The melodies follow tonal and modal idioms, while the complexities cross the line into an intricate study of textures.