Jehan-Aristide Paul Alain[a] ([ʒɑ̃ aʁist alɛ̃]; 3 February 1911 – 20 June 1940) was a French
organist, composer, and soldier. Born into a family of musicians, he learned the organ from his father and a host of other teachers, becoming a composer at 18, and composing until the outbreak of the Second World War 10 years later. His compositional style was influenced by the musical language of the earlier
Claude Debussy, as well as his interest in music, dance and philosophy of the far east. At the outbreak of the
Second World War, Alain became a dispatch rider in the
Eighth Motorised Armour Division of the French Army; he took part in the
Battle of Saumur, in which he was killed.
His younger brother was composer-organist-pianist-musicologist
Olivier Alain and his younger sister was renowned organist
Marie-Claire Alain who was also responsible for popularising his works.
Alain was born in
Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the western suburbs of Paris, into a family of musicians. His father,
Albert Alain (1880–1971) was an organist, composer and amateur organ builder who had studied with
Alexandre Guilmant and
Louis Vierne. His younger brother was the composer, organist and pianist
Olivier Alain (1918–1994), and his youngest sister the organist
Marie-Claire Alain (1926–2013). Jehan received his initial training in the piano from Augustin Pierson, the organist of Saint-Louis at Versailles, and in the organ from his father, who had built a four-manual instrument in the family sitting room. By the age of 11, Jehan was substituting at St. Germain-en-Laye.
Between 1927 and 1939, he attended the Paris Conservatoire and achieved First Prize in Harmony under
André Bloch and First Prize in Fugue with
Georges Caussade. He studied the organ with
Marcel Dupré, under whose direction he took first prize for Organ and Improvisation in 1939. His studies in composition with
Paul Dukas and
Jean Roger-Ducasse won him the Prix des amis de l'orgue in 1936 for his Suite for Organ, Op. 48: Introduction, Variations, Scherzo and Choral.
He was appointed organist of Eglise Saint-Nicolas de Maisons-Laffitte in Paris in 1935, and remained there for four years. He also played regularly at the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth synagogue. The only known recording of his playing—a six-minute improvisation—was made in 1938 at that synagogue.
His short career as a composer began in 1929, when Alain was 18, and lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War 10 years later. His music was influenced not only by the musical language of the earlier
Claude Debussy and his own contemporary
Olivier Messiaen (seen in Le jardin suspendu, 1934), but also by an interest in the music, dance and philosophies of the far east (acquired at the
Exposition coloniale internationale of 1931 and seen in Deux danses à Agni Yavishta, 1932, and Deuxième fantaisie, 1936), a renaissance of baroque music (seen in Variations sur un thème de Clément Janequin, 1937), and in jazz (seen in Trois danses of 1939). Alain described Le jardin suspendu ("The Hanging Garden") as a portrayal of "the ideal, perpetual pursuit and escape of the artist, an inaccessible and inviolable refuge".
He wrote choral music, including a
chamber music, songs and three volumes of piano music. But it is his organ music for which he is best known. His most famous work is Litanies, composed in 1937. That work is prefaced with the text: "Quand l’âme chrétienne ne trouve plus de mots nouveaux dans la détresse pour implorer la miséricorde de Dieu, elle répète sans cesse la même invocation avec une foi véhémente. La raison atteint sa limite. Seule, la foi poursuit son ascension." ("When the Christian soul no longer finds new words in its distress to implore God's mercy, it repeats incessantly the same invocation with a vehement faith. Reason has reached its limits. Alone, faith pursues its ascension"). Deuils ("mourning"), the second of the Trois danses, is dedicated to Odile (Alain's deceased sister) as a "Funeral Dance to an Heroic Memory".
Always interested in mechanics, Alain was a skilled motorcyclist and became a dispatch rider in the Eighth Motorised Armour Division of the French Army. On 20 June 1940, he was assigned to reconnoiter the German advance on the eastern side of
Saumur, and encountered a group of German soldiers at Le Petit-Puy. Coming around a curve, and hearing the approaching tread of the Germans, he abandoned his motorcycle and engaged the adversary. After using his machine gun to shoot several infantry soldiers who had ordered him to surrender, he fell mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the
Croix de Guerre for his bravery, and was provisionally buried at the place where he had died.
He left behind his wife, Madeleine Payan whom he had married in 1935, his three children Denis, Agnès, and Lise, and a body of compositions viewed by many to have been amongst the most original of the 20th century.
Henri Dutilleux's Les citations contains a
quotation from Jehan Alain's music.
Maurice Duruflé wrote a musical tribute to Jehan Alain with his Prélude et fugue sur le nom d'A.L.A.I.N, Op. 7 for organ.
Helga Schauerte-Maubouet: Jehan Alain, Mourir à trente ans, Sampzon, Delatour France, 2020; translated into English by Carolyn Shuster Fournier and Connie Glessner: Jehan Alain, Understanding His Musical Genius, Sampzon, Delatour France, 2022.
The JA Catalogue, drawn by Marie-Claire Alain in 2001, uses partially numbers which Jehan Alain had formerly used to better classify his manuscripts. As the numbering of this catalogue is arbitrary, it is not a Catalogue of his works and the numbers shouldn't be used to designate the work titles. In actual fact, during his lifetime, Jehan Alain had used some opus numbers.
1929 – 18 years old – 4 opus
JA 021 – Togo, pour piano [June 1929]
JA 007 bis – Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent, pour orgue [August 1929]
JA 003 – Etude sur un thème de quatre notes, pour piano [November 1929]
JA 008 – Chanson triste, pour piano 
1930 – 19 years old – 14 opus
JA 009 – Ballade en mode phrygien, pour orgue ou piano [January 1930]
JA 002 – Thème et cinq variations, pour piano [February 1930]
JA 014 – Lamento, pour orgue [February 1930]
JA 001 – Quarante variations, pour piano [April 1930]
JA 017 – Des nuages gris, pour deux pianos [June 1930]
JA 004 – Ecce ancilla Domini, pour piano [August 1930]
JA 029 – Postlude pour l'Office de Complies, pour orgue [August 1930]
JA 130 – Adagio, pour piano [12 August 1930]
JA 005 – Seigneur, donne-nous la paix éternelle (Choral), pour piano [October 1930]
JA 007 – Etude de sonorité sur une double pédale, pour piano [October 1930]
JA 010 – Etude sur les doubles notes, pour piano [October 1930]
JA 020 – Pour le défrichage, pour piano [December 1930]
JA 131 – Variations sur un thème donné de
Rimsky-Korsakov, pour quatre voix [December 1930]
JA 131A – Variations sur un chant donné de Rimsky-Korsakov, pour orgue [December 1930]
JA 131B – Variations sur un thème donné de Rimsky-Korsakov, pour quatuor à cordes [December 1930]
JA 129 – Lettre à son amie Lola pour la consoler d'avoir attrapé la grippe, pour piano 
1931 – 20 years old – 12 opus
JA 012 – Petite rhapsodie, pour piano [February 1931]
JA 016 – Mélodie-sandwich, pour piano [23 February 1931]
JA 006 – Verset-Choral, pour orgue ou piano [March 1931]
JA 011 – Lumière qui tombe d'un vasistas, pour piano [April 1931]
JA 015 – Histoire sur un tapis, entre des murs blancs, pour piano [May 1931]
JA 018 – Canons à sept, pour deux pianos [May 1931]
JA 013 – Heureusement, la bonne fée sa marraine..., pour piano [10 August 1931]
JA 019 – Nocturne, soir du 22 août 31, pour piano [22 August 1931]
JA 022 – En dévissant mes chaussettes, pour piano [September 1931]
JA 023 – 26 septembre 1931, pour piano [26 September 1931]