Alexandre Tansman

1897 1986

Alexandre Tansman

Composer • Piano


Alexandre Tansman was a 20th-century Polish born, French composer and virtuoso pianist. He was considered one of the greatest Polish musicians of his day and performed for royalty such as the Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Mahama Gandhi. His career as a pianist included five American concert tours, one of which was with theBoston Symphony Orchestra.

Tansman was born in Łódź, Poland in 1897 to a wealthy liberal Jewish family. According to Tansman the family housed both a French and German governess and household staff. Tansman’s maternal grandfather was the famous Professor Leon Gourvitch.

Tansman completed his music studies at the Łódź Conservatory, where he studied from 1908 to 1914. One of his teachers at the conservatory was Wojciech Gawronski. Tansman then moved to Warsaw to pursue a doctorate in law at the University of Warsaw, which he completed in 1918. He continued his music studies privately with Piotr Rytel (piano) and Henryk Melcer- Szczawiński (composition).

Torn by the musical preferences in Poland, where he won awards at the Polish National Competition in 1919 yet was also criticized for his use excessive use of chromaticism and polytonality, Tansman decided to leave the conservative style of Poland behind and move to Paris. He gave his debut concert in Paris in early 1920 and soon became friends with successful composers including Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. The music of both Stravinsky and Ravel greatly influenced Tansman, especially the rhythmic qualities of the former’s works and the extended chords of the latter’s music.

Tansman became part of the group of foreign musicians in Paris known as the École de Paris, along withMartinů, Alexander Tcherepnin, Conrad Beck and Marcel Mihalovici. While the members of this group all adapted a very typical French neo-classical style, they each retained the sounds of their own heritage. Despite invitations fromMilhaud and Honegger, Tansman refused to joinLes Six, as he wished to retain his creative individuality. Tansman always proudly described himself as a Polish composer, despite later becoming French, marrying French pianist Colette Cras and speaking French at home. He made this clear in a letter, in which he states, “it is obvious that I owe much to France, but anyone who has ever heard my compositions cannot have doubt that I have been, am and forever will be a Polish composer”.

Tansman’s works that very clearly represent his Jewish and Polish roots include the Polonaises, Nocturnes, Impromptus and Waltzes inspired byFrederic Chopin . Throughout all his works Polish folk-like melodies and Mazurka rhythms can be found, though Tansman maintained, “I have never used an actual Polish folk song in its original form, nor have I tried to reharmonize one. I find that modernizing a popular song spoils it. It must be preserved in its original harmonization”.

Works that more readily portray the neo-classical style popular at the time include theSonata rustica (1925), Sonatine for flute and piano (1925), Symphony no. 2 (1926) and the Piano Concerto no. 2 (1927).

During this period, he also composed works with a romantic edge, such as Le jardin du paradis(1922), a fairy tale ballet, and La nuit kurde (1927), the first of his operas. Later works, such as theRapsodie hébraïque (1933) and The Genesis(1944) showcase his Hebraic heritage. Tansman’s harmonic language was often compared to that of Scriabin, with its atonal leanings, which never truly departs from diatonicism.

Fame came quickly to Tansman after relocating to Paris. The conductor Vladimir Golschmann was one of the first to present Tansman’s orchestral works, including Impressionsin 1921. Serge Koussevitsky followed Golschmann’s example in 1923 with theScherzo sinfonico in 1923. He also conducted both of Tansman’s piano concerts in Paris and Boston, with Tansman as soloist; while on tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Koussevitzky in 1927, Tansman met composerGeorge Gershwin. Many of the best conductors of his day were impressed with Tansman’s works and also began programming them. These conductors included Toscanini, Mengelberg, Stokowski, Monteux, Wood and Boult. Tansman’s popularity led him on tours through Europe, Asia and America. He even visited Palestine and India.

Tansman received the French nationality in 1938, but political tensions leading up to World War II made it unsafe for him, as a Jew, to stay in Europe. He escaped with his family to Los Angeles in 1941 with the help of Charlie Chaplin. While in Los Angeles Tansman became (re-) acquainted with other European emigrants such asMilhaud, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

While in Los Angeles, Tansman took advantage of his proximity to Hollywood and composed six film scores (1 in Paris, 4 in Hollywood and 1 in London) including Flesh and Fantasy (1942) and Paris Underground (1945). In 1946 Tansman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for his work on Paris Underground.

After the war, Tansman returned to Paris, though in the years of his absence the musical fashion had changed dramatically, and his name had taken a back-seat to the more popular and Avant-garde composers of the time. During this period, Tansman turned his focus to his Jewish and Polish roots, resulting in some of his greatest compositions. He also began to reach out to acquaintances in Poland, though he remained in Paris with his family. In the post-war years, Tansman also completed a biography on Stravinsky (1948) which was very well-received.

Tansman’s outstanding talent was greatly recognized towards the end of his life with honours such as the Coolidge Medal (1941) and an election to the Académie Royale of Belgium (1977) and the Polish Medal of Cultural Merit (1983). Today, the Alexandre Tansman Competition exists in Łódź in his honour.

Tansman’s output includes nearly 100 piano works such as miniatures, character pieces, sonatas, sonatinas and two piano concertos. He also wrote many guitar pieces for Andrés Segovia, six symphonies, nine string quartets and other chamber music, six operas, three works for choir and orchestra, six film scores and an array of easy pieces for amateurs and children. His instrumental music, especially that for piano and/or violin is especially popular today.