Marie-Claire Alain was the doyenne of French organists, the grande dame of the organ world. With over 260 recordings to her credit, she was arguably the most recorded organist and is only one of two people to have recorded the complete works of Bach three times (in the 1960s, 1978-1980 and the 1990s), the other being Lionel Rogg, as well as the complete works of 12 other composers. She made her first recording in 1954, ‘Pièces inédites de Bach’, on the new Erato label. It is reckoned that since her debut in 1950 she gave well over 2,000 recitals world-wide.
Born, like Debussy, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Alain was the youngest child of a distinguished musical family and the last link in a direct line of celebrated French organists from Guilmant and Vierne, with whom her organist-composer father Albert studied, to Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé, who were her teachers. The latter wrote his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’A.L.A.I.N in 1942 in memory of Marie-Claire’s oldest brother Jehan who had been killed in action in 1940 at the age of 29. She recorded his complete organ works for Erato in 1970-71 (now on two CDs).
Having left the Paris Conservatoire in 1950 after six years, carrying off four Premier Prix, she won second prize at the Geneva International Competition and began her solo career in earnest. This coincided with the time when the early music revival was gathering pace and the neo-classical movement in organ building was taking off. Alain was one of the first to play Bach on the new breed of organs, such as Marcussens in Denmark and Sweden, allowing listeners for the first time in generations to hear the contrapuntal writing with clarity – not exactly as Bach would have heard it but on bright silvery instruments with balanced choruses. She was, in effect, in the vanguard of the new style of playing and adept at recording her chosen repertoire on the right instruments. But it was not just Bach and the Baroque in which she excelled, as her playing of Mendelssohn, Franck, Liszt, Poulenc and her brother’s music testifies.
Much sought-after as a teacher, Marie-Claire Alain was noted for her modesty and lack of ego, as well as for her warmth and patience with even the least talented of her pupils. She married in 1950 and had two children. Her husband died in 1992.