Henri Tomasi

1901 1971

Henri Tomasi



Henri Tomasi was a 20th century French composer. His total output, of approximately 120 works, spanned many genres, including opera, ballet, theatre, concertos, and symphonies. His musical language was inspired by the breathtaking scenery of the Mediterranean landscape and civilization. Though his music was frequently played during his lifetime, this popularity declined for a time after his death. Much of his colorful music is currently being rediscovered, especially his concertos.

Henri Tomasi was born into a working class family in Marseilles, France. His father, Xavier, was a postal worker but also an amateur flautist and piano folklorist, specializing in Corsican songs. Xavier sent 5-year-old Henri to piano lessons, where he flourished. In 1908, Henri Tomasi entered the conservatory of Marseilles where he proceeded to win various prizes in theory and piano. Despite his abundance of musical talent, Henri dreamed of becoming a sailor. His father, however, pushed him to pursue music, and as soon as he had accumulated enough skills, was paraded through the homes of the elite as a child prodigy. During the summers, Tomasi visited his grandmother, who taught him traditional Corsican songs, inspiring several of his compositions.

In 1916, Tomasi was accepted into the Paris Conservatory but his entry was delayed due to the onset of World War I. During this time, he played in a variety of settings including bars, hotels, restaurants, brothels, and cinemas. His compositional flair was discovered by way of his improvisations at the piano. Tomasi was finally able to enroll at the Paris Conservatory in 1921, with the help of a scholarship from the municipality of Marseilles. Despite the scholarship, Tomasi’s poverty forced him to continue performing in the various local venues. While at the conservatory, he studied conducting withVincent d’Indy and Philippe Gaubert, harmony with Charles Silver, counterpoint and fugue with Georges Caussade, and composition with Paul Vidal.

Tomasi’s love of the theatre stemmed from a visit with his mother to Puccini ’s opera, La bohème. He described this experience in a letter to his best friend, Jean Molinetti in 1976, “While I listened […] I had the feeling that my entire youthful being was blossoming;” he continued, “I believe that that performance ofLa bohème was responsible for my musical destiny.” Evidence of Puccini’s influence, and that of opera in general, can be seen in Tomasi’s prevailing sense of lyricism. Beyond Puccini, Tomasi was strongly influenced by the work ofBizet, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Ravel, and later also Richard Strauss. While his sense of lyricism and drama was influenced by Puccini and Verdi, his harmonic palate was strongly influenced by Debussy <> and Ravel. Tomasi prided himself on the variation in his compositions, that nothing stayed constant.

He developed both his compositional and conducting skills while studying at the Paris Conservatory, winning various prizes in both fields. Tomasi’s first piece,Variations on a Corsican Theme (1925) won the Prix Halphen. Thereafter, he was awarded the highest possible honors in conducting, a Grand Prix de Rome and a First Prize for Orchestra Conducting.

After completing his studies, he began his music career as conductor of ‘Concerts du Journal’. Some of his early compositions includePaghiella (1928) andHebrew Song (1929), both for violin and piano. During the following years, he also composedCyrnos (1929), a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra dedicated to his wife, Odette Camp. According toFlorent Schmitt, Cyrnos “contains original ideas, inspiration, and lastly a dash of lyricism.”  When not composing, he busied himself with conducting the Radio-Colonial Orchestra, becoming one of the first proponents of ‘radiophonic music’.

In 1932, Tomasi, along with Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinů, Jacques Ibert <>, Darius Milhaud, and Jean Françaix, among others, founded the group Triton , dedicated to contemporary music. Shortly thereafter, he won the Gran Prix du Disque for his recording of Gluck’sOrphée. He also experienced great success with the premiere of his ballet,Les Santons (1937), at the Opéra de Paris in 1938.

Tomasi strived for lyricism and to always encompass human qualities in his music. Occasionally he would use serial and dodecaphonic methods in his music, but in general, he despised ‘systems’, sectarianism and electronic music, which he perceived as boring and lacking in any connection with human emotion, conflicting with what really interested him, “man and his passionate side.” Tomasi prided himself on the variety of his compositions, however one constant remained: the basis of a text, even if the words were not used in the music. Despite this variety, his works can be clearly categorized into several periods. His early period is very much in sync with the other French composers of his time such asRavel, Poulenc, and Françaix. This period would last until just before World War I, when he experienced an existential crisis and left alone on a cargo ship to Dakar; however, before reaching his destination, he was forced to return to France due to the outbreak of the war. After being drafted, he was sent to lead the marching band at the fort of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

After being discharged from the army, he continued his conducting career with the Orchestre National, and composed hisSymphonie in Ut (1941), a piece which marked the beginning of a new compositional period for him. According to Tomasi, the theme of the symphony expresses “the battle between the instinct of passion and mystical yearnings—the sufferings of humanity—the final affirmation of joy.” During this period, marked by religious retreat and the desire to become a monk, he composedDon Juan de Manara (1943), one of his most significant works, andRequiem (1944).  The opera retells the story of Don Juan with a twist in which Don Juan gives up his old ways.Fanfares Liturgiques, one part of the opera scored only for brass and percussion, can stand alone. It was first performed several years later in Monte Carlo, and became one of Tomasi’s most well-known pieces. Consisting of four movements depicting Christian mysteries and rituals, it is essentially an instrumental oratorio, using instruments in place of the voice. Similarities toStravinsky, Respighi, Dukas, Copland – even Bach – can be observed in this music.

By 1944, after the discovery of the concentration camps and other atrocities from the war, Tomasi rejected his faith in God and religion, setting all his religious works aside. In a letter to his son, Claude, he writes that he had ceased in believing in anything and that his hopes for mankind had vanished. This began a darker period in his compositional style, a period marked by the influence of social issues and injustices. This period would continue until his death.

After a long struggle with the oncoming deafness in his right ear, he left conducting altogether and focused solely on his compositions. In 1948, he composed his most famous work, his Trumpet Concerto. The concerto has been performed and recorded extensively by many virtuosic performers including Wynton Marsalis, Eric Aubier, and Maurice Andre. During these years, he also wrote many concertos for other instruments such as thesaxophone, violin, double bass, trombone, and clarinet. Tomasi further experienced great success with his mainstream opera,L’Atlantide (1958). During this period he began questioning all of his former ideas and philosophies. Pieces representative of this state of mind include theThird World Symphony (1967), dedicated to Hector Berlioz andEloge de la Folie (1965), his last work for the theatre, a cross between opera and ballet that deals with Goya, the SS, racism and napalm, a flammable liquid used in warfare. Tomasi found that this piece mirrored his own evolution at the time.

Inspired by the text of Hamlet, Tomasi began scoring music for an operatic setting. It was left unfinished at the time of his death, in Paris on January 13, 1971.

Roland Duclos of La Montagne remarked in November 1997 that "One does not understand Tomasi, even through listening or reflecting; one receives him as a revelation."