Jehan Alain composer of 140 or of 120 works?

             Since January 2011 the works of the French composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940) are in public domain in the countries where the copyright term is limited to 70 years. Many recent biographical articles repeat the statement that you may discover on the new cover of the Leduc editions, printed after 2000. There you read: “Throughout his short life he never ceased to compose, for the piano, the organ, chamber music, voices (soloists and chorus), and the orchestra. His catalogue comprises some 140 works.”


            A new edition of his complete organ works (3 volumes) has been released in the first months of 2011 by Bärenreiter in Germany. The preface stipulates: “In spite of his youthful age, he left some 120 compositions to posterity”.  


            120 or 140 compositions? During the ten years of his compositional activity, did Jehan Alain write 140 or (only!) 120 works? Referring to volume II (page XI) of the new Bärenreiter edition, the following text will give some inside regarding his music and may clarify some of the problems of the Alain work catalogues. 


            Jehan Alain kept a numbered and thematic index of his works. However, his Catalogue1 included neither his whole oeuvre nor did the compositions listed in it appear in the chronological order of their creation. It is merely a list of works with entries for 128 titles and themes, updated until 1938. Found in the list are not only elaborated themes, but also those yet to be worked on. For example, the two entries under the numbers 99 and 100 are designated as “improvisation ideas.”2 The list also includes some transcriptions of works by Bach and Händel..


            The composer used his numberings to arrange and to keep in order the files of his manuscripts. He will not use these numbers in the sense of “opus” numbers. For instance, he referred to the Postlude pour l’Office de Complies as “opus 1” and he labeled a manuscript page of the Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin as “op. 13.” The numbers in his work catalogue are entirely different: there the Postlude is number 29 and the Jannequin Variations are listed under number 118.


            In addition, as the result of an oversight, the composer’s catalogue displays a corrupt numbering system: the numbers 102 to 111 were not assigned.


            In 1945, in his biography Jehan Alain: Musicien français, Bernard Gavoty published his own newly compiled work catalogue. Listing ninety-three works – short pieces and transcriptions are omitted – it includes only a part of the complete oeuvre. As far as the chronological order is concerned, the Postlude (from 1930), erroneously dated here to 1932, is number 21. The Variations received number 78.


            After exhaustive study of the autographs in the possession of the Alain family as well as of additional music manuscripts held in various personal collections, I compiled a new chronological catalogue which was published in 1983 in my study Jehan Alain. Das Orgelwerk: Eine monographische Studie (French translation, “Jehan Alain. L’homme et l’œuvre,” L’Orgue, Dossier III, Paris 1985). Without transcriptions and unfinished or lost works, this catalogue contains 120 titles. In 1999, my catalogue which was then referred to by the abbreviation AWV (Alain Werke Verzeichnis) was adopted by the new edition of MGG (Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik, 2nd edn) as well as in 2001 by the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edn).


            At the same time, between 2001 and 2003, a new Collected Works edition was issued by Leduc. Edited by Marie-Claire Alain the works were now for the first time provided with a “JA” catalogue number referring to the composer’s fragmentary numbering list of his works. The composer’s file was posthumously completed by adding the numbers 129 to 143. In 2008, for an unknown reason, the online version of the Grove Dictionary erased the AWV-catalogue in favour of the JA-catalogue. 143 works are listed in there, but nevertheless JA 102 to JA 111 are invalid numbers that are not assigned to a piece of music.


            140 or 120 works? Try to find out!

1 See the fac-simile in Marie-Claire Alain, Notes critiques sur l’œuvre d’orgue de Jehan Alain (Leduc: Paris, 2001), pp. 16–24.


2 These are only a very few measures in length. They were published in volume III (Paris: Leduc, 1943, p. 32) under the titles Christe eleison and Amen. They were more recently republished under the titles Christe, eleison and Deuxième Amen in Seize pièces pour piano (Paris: Leduc, 1992)


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