Go to content Go to main navigation
Alexandre TANSMAN

Alexandre TANSMAN


Alexandre Tansman was born in Lodz in Poland on June 12th 1897. In 1918, he terminated both his music and law studies in Warsaw. One year later, he obtained the first three prizes at the great composition contest organised by the newly independent Poland. However, from his first concerts, his works were considered too bold, and the critics were hard on him. It has to be said that way back in 1916, the young composer was writing a polytonal and atonal music and was even appealing to a dodecaphonic harmony without ever having heard of Schoënberg. In Poland at that time, Debussy’s works were hardly known and almost nothing was known of Ravel ! Disappointed by his welcome in Poland, the composer set off for Paris in 1919, where he was immediately introduced to the world of culture and where he met Ravel, who encouraged and revised him : «Ravel taught me the meaning of musical economy, of the close an intimate correspondence between the contour and form of expression, to hate idle-talk and filling». He became friends with the musicians of the group of «the Six», and with foreign musicians who had likewise settled in Paris, such as M. Mihalovici, T. Harsanyi, B. Martinu, C. Beck, A. Tcherepnin... («The Paris School»), to which he would belong. From an early time, his works were played and conducted by the best artists : first Koussevitzky and Golschmann, who propagated his music in France and the United States, then conductors such as Serafin, Toscanini, Monteux, Stokowski, Mengelberg, Horenstein, Baton, etc... and interpretors such as Gieseking, Rubinstein, Iturbi, Marchex, M. Freund, A. Segovia, B. Michelangeli, Hubermann, Szegeti, Heifetz, etc... A. Tansman became friends with all the great composers of the time : Prokofiev, Hindemith, Roussel, Bartok (on his death he dedicated his sonata n°5 to him), Casella, Pizzetti, and of course Milhaud (he would dedicate to him an «Elegy in memoriam» for orchestra).

He performed his first concerts in America, often conducting and playing himself, and made new acquaintances who soon became friends : Schoënberg, Gershwin, C. Chaplin, Copland, etc... In 1933, he travelled around the world, still interpreting his own works, and had a triumphant success, in Honolunu, Tokyo, Java, Bali, Singapore, Bombay, Manila, Majorca, etc... (He wrote his album entitled «The World tour in miniature», for piano). He also enriched his language with new harmonies an many critics talked of the «Tansman phenomenon». Irving Schwerke, an eminent music writer, dedicated a monograph to him. In 1938, the French President, Albert Lebrun, finally conferred French nationality on him. In the same year, he married Colette Cras, the pianist and daughter of the composer and admiral, Jean Cras. However, the war obliged the composer and his family to flee : he did in fact figure on Goebbel’s black list. It was thanks to the emergency committee directed by C. Chaplin, Stokowski, Goossens, and others, that the whole family was able to find refuge in the United States, in Hollywood, where the composer shared the fate of many other European emigrants : Milhaud, Schoenberg, Toch, Castelnuovo Tedesco, T. Mann, E. Berman, I. Feurtwangler, etc... He had an almost brotherly friendship with Stravinsky : «Frequenting Stravinsky contributed to my not seeking in music just music, but treating it as an autonomous and absolute art, discovering an aesthetic tradition that neo-Romanticism and expression had somewhat wiped out...» He dedicated a work to him in 1947, and on his death, in 1972, «Stèle in Memoriam d’Igor Stravinsky», for orchestra.

In this kind of «Weimar» of the war years, A. Tansman wrote two symphonies (one «In Memoriam of those who died for France», the 6th), much chamber music and film music in collaboration with great movie-directors such as J. Duvivier, F. Lang, D. Nichols, etc...

In 1946, the family returned to Paris and his musical life was born again with great fervour. It was the time of his full creative maturity. In the whole world, his works belonged to the current repertory of concerts. He continued his tours all over : in Belgium, Holland, Spain, Israel, Germany, Italy and finally Poland, which came to know his work and welcomed him home like the prodigal son, bestowing on him the Honoris Causa Doctorate in his native town. Although he was an eternal wanderer, often due to circumstances outside his control, Paris remained his elected homeland until his death on Novemver 15th 1986. Was he a French composer, a Polish composer or a Jewish composer ? All these elements can be found in his music.

Tansman’s artistic heritage comprises more than 300 works with the most diverse forms : operas (Le Serment, La Nuit Kurde, Sabbatai Zévi, Le Rossignol de Boboli, Georges Dandin), grandiose works for choir and orchestra (Isaïe le Prophète, Psaumes, Prologue et Cantate), Symphonies, numerous chamber music works, including 4 string quartets, concertos for every kind of instrument (piano, violin, cello, clarinet, oboe...), ballets (La Grande Ville, Résurrection, Bric à Brac, Les habits neufs du roi, Le train de nuit, etc...), music for piano, 2 pianos, guitar, etc..., numerous theatre and film music.

The musician’s artistic principle is based on the logic of form, on simplicity and limpidity, on the richness of lyrical elements, without falling into pathos and exaggerations ; his lyricism, where Chopin’s echo can be found, is based on all the new conquests in the field of harmony, and is accompanied by a highly original, colourful instrumentation. Music writers talk of «Tansmanian chords», his «skyscraper chords», elaborated with his conceptions of harmony. There should also be added a great creative power, a certain ease in dealing with the very latest techniques, such as polyphony, and the fact of having been influenced by all the forms ; jazz (Sonatine Transatlantique, Suite pour Carnaval, Quartet for clarinet and chords, Résurrection), light music (Musique de Table, Suite légère, etc...), exotic music, the folk music of the most varied people, ancient music and, of course, the Polish element that is often put in relief (exotic : Le Tour du monde en miniature, Rapsodie hébraïque, Suite de Magellan, etc... ancient : Suite dans le style ancien, Suite baroque, Variations sur un thème de Frescobaldi, etc...), theatre music : Christophe Colomb, Magellan, Le Masque Rouge, etc... Polish element : Mazurkas for piano (4 collections), Suite in the Polish style for guitar, etc... Sinfonietta n°2.

Alexandre Tansman has gone through a whole epoch of musical evolution, and while using new techniques, he never betrayed his principles towards his art : «I personnaly think that in music the present is always tied to the past, such as it has accumulated... In my opinion it is ridiculous to deny what we owe to our predecessors through fear of a blow to our own personality. However, there are blind and aberrant influences, and there are sollicited ones, enabling the artist to clear his own path without cutting into his character and special trends in whatever way... I do not wish to be a modern musician, I want to be a musician of my time ; that means trying to pursue the fundamental and unchageable aim of music through the means of one’s time, or rather through the means which my time has reached in its evolution...»

Marianne Tansman Martinozzi


> News

- CD recording: Concerto for clarinet and orchestra, by Fabrizio Meloni (clarinet) and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Brian Schembri, for the label CPO - 555079-2.

See all works composed by Alexandre TANSMAN