Tansman, Alexandre (1897-1986)

Born in Łódź, the 11th June 1897, in a Jewish bourgeois family, cultivated and music lover, Alexandre Tansman starts composing music very young « in the way of Chopin ». He studies at the same time piano, harmony and solfeggio. But it will be in Warsaw that Tansman will affirm his vocation of composer, encouraged by some, but discouraged by Polish critics. Indeed, ignoring the Western musical trends of the time, he uses polytonal harmonies, chord resolutions out of schemas of functional harmony. Thanks to a composing contest organized by Poland, which became independant again, the young man wins the three first awards under three different pen names !

At the end of 1919, he settles down in Paris where he will meet the most important music figures of the time : Ravel, Bartók, Gershwin, Honegger, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Roussel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc. His works are quickly conducted and performed in Paris as well as all Europe and the United States. In the 1930’s, he is part of a group called « l’École de Paris » with composers originating like him from Eastern Europe : Tcherepnine, Martinu, Mihalovici, Harsanyi.

Between 1932 and 1933, he starts a world tour which brings him to the United States, Hawai, Japan, China, Philippines, Singapour, Indonesia (Java, Bali and Sumatra), Ceylan, India, Egypt, Italy and the Balearics.

While the whole world applauds him as a Polish composer, Tansman will harmonise in this year 1933 a serie of twelve Hebraic Songs, his first work of real Jewish inspiration. Tansman had known a young Yemenite singer who sang to him beautiful Jewish tunes from Yemen in the purest Jewish tradition. This music score opened a serie of works in which the composer wished to highlight the specific and nevertheless universal qualities of Judaism, under the aspect of its philosophical contribution to humanity.

In 1941, thanks to the support of a commitee organized by Charlie Chaplin, Arturo Toscanini, Serge Koussevitzky, Eugene Ormandy and Jascha Heifetz, Alexandre Tansman leaves France for the united States, where he will stay until 1946.

In 1950, Tansman composes what will maybe be his most important work, the oratorio « Isaïe, the Prophet » dedicated to the memory of six million Jews exterminated during World War II and to the birth of the State of Israel.

In 1953, the death of his second wife, Colette Cras, with whom he had two daughters, Mireille and Mariannne, is the hardest loss in his life. At the time he starts to write his memoirs, published in 2013 at the Editions Aedam Musicae under the title « Alexandre Tansman, Regards en arrière : Itinéraire d’un musicien cosmopolite au XXe siècle ».

His creativity is however always more productive and his works testify of a great maturity : such as his operas « The Oath » and « Sabbataï Zevi, the false prophet ». He continues to privilege symphonic music to chamber music.

In the 1970’s, France qualifies his music as too « neo-classical », isolates him from musical life, as well as other composers of his generation. However, little by little, Poland discovers him. After more or less 50 years, Tansman comes back to his native country. He is acclaimed as the « child prodigy of Łódź» ; festivals, articles, interviews, are dedicated to him. Moreover, the first Polish biography, written by Janusz Cegiella, in collaboration with the composer, gives to him the popularity to his fellow countrymen he always dreamed of. One of his latest works is a mazurka for guitar, Hommage to Lech Walesa (1982). France names him Commander of Arts and letters in 1986. Alexandre Tansman however doesn’t live long enough to see his native country independant, and receives, post-mortem the nomination to « Doctor honoris causa of the musical academy of Łódź ».
He dies in Paris on the 15th November 1986.

Since 1996, an Alexandre Tansman contest is organized in his native town in November every two years.

The artistic heritage of Tansman includes over 300 works for various instrumental and vocal ensembles, among them 7 operas, 11 ballets, 6 oratorios, 80 orchestral scores (of which 9 Symphonies), many works for chamber music, 8 String Quartets, 8 Concerti for all instruments, around a hundred pages for piano, many stage and film music, and many pieces intended for children. Around thirty of his works are directly inspired from the Jewish tradition.

Look at the offical website of the association Friends of Alexandre Tansman

PDF - 3.7 Mb
Virtual exhibition, by Bettina Sadoux, in collaboration with Mireille Tansman-Zanuttini

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Aleksander Tansman (1897 - 1986) - YouTube










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