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Comments on Jehan Alain's Litanies (JA 119)
By Marie-Claire Alain

A manuscript of Litanies, a piece now familiar to organists all over the world, gives the date of completion as « 15 August 1937 ». Alain confided to his friend Bernard Gavoty: « Prayer is not a complaint but a blast of wind that sweeps all before it. It is also an obsession... ». The obsessive nature of the great theme in the mode of D transposed into E flat is apparent from the start, pounded out to an irregular beat: 3+5+2+4+2. Jehan was looking for music with « magical power » and Litanies are intended to be spellbinding. The composer also includes passages from Fantasmagorie (JA 63), written a few years earlier in a train with its irregular movement inspiring the rhythmically contrasted second theme. In a typical Alain paradox, the tragic and the comic are set off against each other in the same piece. But the tragic element soon prevails, dominating the work until the final climax. Three weeks after Litanies was completed, our sister Marie-Odile died in a climbing accident. It was after this tragic event that Jehan wrote the following dedication: « When in its extremity the Christian soul can find no new word to implore God's mercy, it tiredlessly repeats the same plea with vehement faith. The limits of reason are reached, and only faith can pursue its ascension ».