LAWRENCE – When James Higdon, now the Dane and Polly Bales Professor of Organ, arrived at the University of Kansas School of Music 38 years ago, he received a faculty research grant that set him on the path that has culminated in his new two-CD album, “Jehan Alain: Organ Works – a 1942 Perspective.”
“I proposed that the university send me to France to study,” Higdon recalled in a recent interview in his office at the Dane and Polly Bales Recital Hall, purpose-built in 1996 adjacent to the Lied Center of Kansas to house the Hellmuth Wolff, opus 40 organ and Higdon’s teaching program.
Back in the 1980s, Higdon wanted to and did extend his working partnership with Marie-Claire Alain, who, in addition to teaching, was said to have been the world’s most prolific classical organ recording artist. That was where Higdon first encountered the works of Jehan Alain, Marie-Claire Alain’s late older brother.
Jehan Alain (1911-1940) had died in combat at age 29 while serving in the French Army during the early stages of World War II. He had published only a couple of organ works before his death, so, as a memorial to the young artist, his father, Albert Alain, arranged to publish a series of Jehan’s works, despite the hardships imposed by the Nazi occupation of France.
“Despite this seemingly impossible scenario, his father published a three-volume set of his son’s works in 1942,” Higdon said. “He published 100 copies. You needed ration coupons to buy paper in those days, and he collected the necessary coupons from his son’s friends.”
Higdon said this while holding on his desktop one of those 100 copies, which he obtained during the course of his research into Jehan Alain from the musician’s niece and biographer, Aurelie DeCourt.
“She said she would give me Albert’s personal copy of the first edition,” Higdon said. “I took it to the paper conservators here at KU, and they put them in these special binders. I decided to make a recording based on the first edition. There are many differences in the father, Albert’s, edition. There are a lot of handwritten notes.”
Higdon said Albert Alain’s emendations includes “note changes and different registrations for certain pieces. I am thinking that he quite likely would have gotten these notions from hearing his son, Jehan, play or from speaking to him, but, of course, there is no way of knowing for sure,” Higdon said.
Albert Alain is an interesting figure in his own right. The woodworker and church organist hand-built a large, four-manual pipe organ in his family’s home in the Paris suburb Saint-Germain-en-Laye, inspiring his three children (Jehan, Marie-Claire and Olivier) to become players and composers. Today, Albert Alain’s organ has been restored and moved to a building in Romainmotier, Switzerland, where the Association Jehan Alain owns it.
After many years of visiting France and playing the various organs Jehan Alain had played, Higdon decided to record some of his latest CD set on Albert Alain’s organ in Switzerland.
“It’s a fabulous, large instrument, carefully constructed,” Higdon said. “It’s very, very musical. It’s the organ that inspired many of Jehan Alain’s compositions. I wanted to include it both for artistic reasons and because of the research I had done on it.”
Five tracks on the CD set were made in late 2016 and early 2017 in Switzerland. The remainder of the album was recorded at Bales Recital Hall last year, using the school’s existing recording system with a few tweaks.
“The organ here and the acoustics were ideal for this kind of music; plus it gave me a chance to go to Switzerland to play the Alain organ,” Higdon said.
He said the Alain family’s instrument “didn’t sound like I thought it was going to sound; it didn’t operate like I thought it was going to operate.”
Higdon said he had previously recorded some of Jehan Alain’s works, but none so extensively as his new set.
“I studied all the works with Marie-Claire Alain, but when I saw these manuscripts, I knew there was something there,” Higdon said. “If you play Bach, it should sound like Bach, but it shouldn’t sound like Bach played by anyone else. It should be your idea of Bach. This is my idea of how the works of Jehan Alain should be played. … I learned things from these precious volumes here.”
Higdon is scheduled to give a concert in memory of Marie-Claire Alain (1926-2013), featuring some of the works of Jehan Alain, May 26 at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.