Contextualizing the Music of Jehan Alain: Three Lenses on Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin
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French organist and composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940) was one of the first to bring modernism to organ composition. His music is known for its highly creative, even fantastical, approach to form, rhythm, timbre and mode. This dissertation explores the relationship between Alain’s innovative compositional voice and the trends of his time, using a multipronged analysis of one piece to situate Alain in the ideological and musical currents of interwar France. Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin (1937) is a set of variations on a sixteenth-century chanson. The theme is an almost verbatim transcription of a polyphonic Renaissance work arranged for piano and solo voice by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in the 1850s. Analysis shows that the changes Weckerlin made to the 1529 source better align his arrangement with ideal “French” qualities identified and promoted throughout nineteenth-century France in a widespread attempt to overturn the prevailing negative image of French music by identifying its distinctive and positive qualities. Written comments by Alain suggest that what attracted him about this chanson were both its authentic Renaissance characteristics and the notion of Frenchness portrayed in Weckerlin’s arrangement. Aspects of Alain’s Variations also suggest the influence of three historic forms on its structure: intabulations, fugues and Noëls. However, analysis shows that Alain’s composition makes only surface references to early music, and that like his contemporaries, he was more inspired by the “spirit” than the techniques of historic music. This correlates with the emphasis in the early music revival movement and the subsequent construction of “Frenchness” on affective rather than procedural aspects – e.g. grace, elegance and tenderness. Alain’s Variations also exhibits the complex modalism characteristic of French compositions of his time, when composers were exposed to modes and scales outside common-practice tonality via plainchant, early music, nineteenth-century Russian music, Debussy and non-Western music. Alain complicates the Dorian mode of the chanson theme with chromaticism and synthetic scales much as Tournemire combined Gregorian modes with polytonal techniques in L’Orgue mystique. Ultimately it is the hybridization of contemporary and historic influences into an original and non-derivative sound that makes Alain’s music so striking.
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