The renowned French organist and pedagogue, Marie-Claire Alain, was the youngest child in a family of distinguished musicians. Her father, Albert Alain (1880-1971), a composer and amateur organ builder, had been a pupil of Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne and Fauré. Her sister Odile was a promising soprano and pianist who lost her life early in a mountaineering accident; her older brother, Olivier Alain, was a composer, pianist, and musicologist. Her oldest brother was the renowned Jehan (Ariste) Alain, a composer and organist whose teachers included Marcel Dupré, Paul Dukas, and Jean Roger-Ducasse. He numbered Messiaen and Francis Poulenc among his closest friends and his works for organ - Litanies, in particular - established him as one of the brightest stars among rising French composers in the decade before his battlefield death in 1940, at 29. A twin sense of loss and inheritance informed her studies and career.
With the allied liberation of Paris in August 1944, Marie-Claire Alain entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Marcel Dupré for organ, Pié-Caussade for counterpoint and fugue, and Maurice Duruflé for harmony. M. Duruflé composed one of the finest of his small but masterly group of organ works as an hommage to Marie-Claire's brother, the Prélude et fugue sur le nom d'Alain, Op. 7 (1942). At the age of 11 she made her debut in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She studied with M. Duruflé from 1944 until 1950, school-work being augmented by private lessons. During her Conservatoire years, she carried off four Premier Prix.
After the inauguration of her career in 1950 in her formal debut in Paris, Marie-Claire Alain took a prize for organ at the Geneva International Competition and gave her first public recital. The Amis de Orgue awarded her the Bach Prize in 1951. After a further two years of study with Gaston Litaize, she took up her career in earnest. In subsequent years, she made frequent tours of Europe. In 1961 she made her first tour of the USA. During her career she has given well over 2,000 recitals world-wide. As a performing organist, she was particularly known for performing substantial works entirely from memory. Her exhaustive repertoire included works by the Baroque masters as well as contemporary scores.
Marie-Claire Alain's reputation as a performer and recording artist would be hard to overstate. Her recordings number in the hundreds, and she recorded the complete works of J.S. Bach three separate times, a singular achievement (the Swiss organist Lionel Rogg is the only other artist to record this complete oeuvre three times). She also recorded the complete works of over a dozen other major composers for the organ, as well as many individual important works. She was the most-recorded organist in the world, with over 260 recordings in her catalogue, several of which have won awards (such as the Sonning Award in 1980 in Denmark). By the 1980's, she had become known as a specialist in 17th and 18th century music, with numerous recordings of works by François Couperin, Nicolas de Grigny, Daquin, Antonio Vivaldi, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Frideric Handel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Haydn, and Mozart - among many others - to her credit. But she also made distinguished recordings of Romantic repertoire with albums of works by Felix Mendelssohn, César Franck, Franz Liszt, Widor, Vierne, Francis Poulenc, and Jehan Alain - whose punctilious execution is suffused with passion - carrying into the 21st century living traditions extending to the middle of the 19th.
Marie-Claire Alain was much in demand as a teacher. She lectured at the Haarlem Summer Academy of Organists in Holland from 1956 to 1972. She also gave master-classes around the world. She had a long association with the St Albans International Organ Festival.