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A rare refuge from brutality of war

Jehan Alain. National Library of France

On Oct. 6, Jonathan Wessler, assistant organist at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge, performs a recital including the Intermezzo, both Fantasies, and “Le jardin suspendu” by French organist-composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940). Alain’s talent was singular — his compositions won acclaim even as his unorthodox style slowed his academic progress. World War II interrupted his nascent career. As a soldier on reconnaissance on the outskirts of the French town of Saumur, Alain (inset) chanced upon a detachment of the German forces besieging the town. He killed 16 enemy soldiers before being killed himself. He was 29.

Alain’s death came three days after Marshal Philippe Pétain had called on French troops to stop fighting. Colonel Daniel Michon, head of Saumur’s Ecole de cavalerie, the French army’s cavalry academy, instead insisted that the school defend the town, as a matter of honor. Some 780 students and teachers, joined by another thousand or so soldiers in the area (many of them, like Alain, having made their way back after the battle and evacuation at Dunkirk), held off more than 10,000 German troops for three days before capitulating.


The Cadets of Saumur entered into French legend. As with most legends, the reality was more equivocal. The mayor wanted to avoid destruction by declaring Saumur an open city; Michon’s defiance brought a barrage of 2,000 German shells. The German troops, with similar backgrounds and education as the cadets (soldiers on both sides had met in prewar equestrian contests), generously freed their prisoners, and reportedly buried the French dead, Alain included, with full honors; elsewhere in France, other French units, particularly the all-black Tirailleurs Sénégalais, were ruthlessly massacred for comparable acts of resistance. Saumur was an anachronistic moment of old-fashioned military chivalry in a war already saturated with remorseless cruelty.

Alain described the hanging garden illustrated in “Le jardin suspendu” as “the ideal, perpetual pursuit and escape of the artist, an inaccessible and inviolable refuge.” He pursued that refuge with disquieting obsessiveness: like many of Alain’s pieces, “Le jardin suspendu” circles around a single, repeated idea, constantly recasting and reharmonizing it, but never moving beyond it. In Alain’s music, one senses a fine line between an idealized vision and an inescapable fate.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.