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Alexandre Tansman

Polish composer, naturalised French citizen, born 12 June, 1897 in Lodz, died 15 November, 1986 in Paris

Alexandre Tansman was born in Lodz, Poland, on 12 June, 1897. In 1918, he concluded his studies in both music and law in Warsaw. One year later, he was awarded three first prizes in a composition competition organised by the newly-independent Polish state. However, his music was deemed to be too audacious by critics, and the reviews were scathing. At just 19 years of age, the composer was already writing polytonal and atonal music, and even proposed a system of twelve-tone serialism without being aware of the music and theories of Schoenberg; at this time in Poland, the works of Debussy were not widely known, and Ravel was virtually unheard of.

Disappointed with the reception of his work in Poland, Tansman moved to Paris in 1919, where he immediately ingratiated himself with the city’s cultural elite. He met Ravel, who offered encouragement: “Ravel taught me to develop my sense of economy of means, to reflect upon the intimate relationship between line and means of expression, and to reject all that is superfluous.” Tansman was a friend of the members of Les Six, and of many noteworthy foreign musicians living in Paris at the time, including Marcel Mihalovici, Tibor Harsanyi, Bohuslav Martinu, Conrad Beck and Alexandre Tcherepnine, i.e., L’École de Paris. Soon after his arrival in France, his works were noticed by leading musicians: Firstly, Koussevitzky and Golschmann promoted Tansman’s work in France and the United States; later, conductors including Serafin, Toscanini, Monteux, Stokowski, Mengelberg, Horenstein, Baton, etc., and instrumentalists such as Gieseking, Rubinstein, Iturbi, Marchex, M. Freund, A. Segovia, B. Michelangeli, Hubermann, Szigeti, Heifetz and others programmed his works.

Alexandre Tansman was a friend of virtually all the great composers of his time: Prokofiev, Hindemith, Roussel, Bartók (to whom he dedicated his Sonata No. 5), Casella, Pizzetti, and of course, Milhaud (for whom he composed an Elegy in memoriam for orchestra).

Tansman undertook his first tours to North America, often conducting and performing his own work, and becoming acquainted with luminaries including Schoenberg, Gershwin, C. Chaplin, Copland, etc. In 1933, he embarked on a world tour, performing his own works to great acclaim in Honolulu, Tokyo, Bali, Singapore, Bombay, Manilla, Majorca, and elsewhere. It was on this trip that he composed the collection of works for piano, A Miniature Tour of the World. Travel also allowed him to enrich his harmonic language, and upon his return to Europe, critics spoke of the “Tansam phenomenon.” Irving Schwerke, an eminent musicologist, authored a monographic text on Tansman and his work, and in 1938, French President Albert Lebrun finally bestowed French citizenship upon him. In the same year, he married Colette Cras, a pianist and the daughter of composer and navy admiral, Jean Cras. However, the war forced the composer and his family to flee France; his work had been black-listed by Goebbels. It was thanks to the rescue committee directed by Chaplin, Stokowski, Goossens and others that Tansman and his family were able to take refuge in the United States, where he, along with fellow European émigrés including Milhaud, Schoenberg, Toch, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, T. Mann, E. Berman and L. Furtwängler, lived in Hollywood. While there, he became a close friend of Stravinsky; “My time spent with Stravinsky taught me to not search for more than music in music, to treat it as an autonomous and absolute art form, to rediscover an aesthetic tradition that neo-Romanticism and Expressionism had partially obscured.” Tansman dedicated a piece to Stravinsky in 1947, and composed another on the occasion of the latter’s death in 1972, Stele in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky for orchestra.

In this “Weimar” of the war years, Alexandre Tansman composed two symphonies (one of which was prefaced with the words In Memoriam of those who died for France), a great deal of chambre music and several film scores, written in collaboration with directors such as J. Duvivier, F. Lang, D. Nichols, etc.

In 1946, Tansman and his family returned to Paris, where musical life was once again flourishing. This period marked the height of Tansman’s creative maturity. His works were performed throughout the world, and he continued to tour, visiting Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Israel, Germany, Italy and, finally, Poland, where he was reveived as a prodigal son, receiving an honourary doctorate from the university in his hometown. Though an eternal traveler, soon afterwards, Tansman would be compelled for one reason or another to remain in France, his adopted homeland, until his death on 15 November, 1986. Was he a French composer? A Polish composer? A jewish composer? All of these elements co-exist in his music.

His catalogue comprises more than 300 works, including operas (Le Serment, La Nuit Kurde, Sabbatai Zévi, Le Rossignol de Boboli and Georges Dandin), large-scale works for choir and orchestra (Isaïe le prophète, Psaumes, Prologue and Cantate ), eight symphonies, numerous chambre works (including eight string quartets), concertos for many instruments (piano, violin, cello, clarinet, oboe, etc.), ballets (La Grande Ville,Résurrection,Bric à Brac,Les Habits neufs du roi,Le train de nuit, etc), works for piano, for two pianos, for guitar, etc., and numerous scenic works and film scores.

His artistic identity was based upon the logic of his forms, on simplicity and clarity, on lyrical elements which, while rich, never become weighed down with pathos. His lyricism, in which one hears echoes of Chopin, is based upon new approaches to harmony, along with highly original and colourful instrumentation. Musicologists have spoken of “Tansmanien chords” and of the “sky-scraper chords” which resulted from his distinct harmonic language. At the same time, his identity was also defined by his creative power, the ease with which he integrated new techniques such as polyphony, and the fact that he was influenced by a diverse range of genres, including jazz (Sonatine Transatlantique , Suite for Carnaval, Quartet for Clarinet and Strings , Résurrection), popular music (Musique de Table, Suite légère, etc.), extra-European cultures (A Miniature Tour of the World, Japanese Melodies, Rapsodie hébraïque, Suite de Magellan,Christophe Colombus,Magellan,le Masque rouge), early music (Suite in the Old Style,Baroque Suite,Variations on a Theme by Frescobaldi), and of course, the culture and traditions of his native Poland (Polish Rhapsody,Mazurkas for piano,Suite in the Polish Style for Guitare)

Alexandre Tansman lived in an age which saw great musical evolution. While he gladly made use of the new techniques that drove this evolution forward, this was never at the expense of his artistic principles. “I believe that in music, the present is always closely connected to the past, that it is an accumulation of the past. It is, in my opinion, ridiculous to deny what we owe to our forefathers out of fear that this will undermine our own creative identities. Nonetheless, influences can be distractions, and they have the potential to lead the artist astray. I do not claim to be a modern musician. I seek only to be a musician of my time; this implies pursuing the fundamental and immutable goal of applying the means of the present, or rather, the means which have reached a state of finality in the present.”

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007