Alexandre Tansman

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Alexandre Tansman with his first wife Anna Eleonora Brociner

Alexandre Tansman (12 June 1897 – 15 November 1986) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of Jewish origin. He spent his early years in his native Poland, but lived in France for most of his life, being granted French citizenship in 1938. His Polish identity influenced several orchestral and chamber works, such as Rapsodie polonaise and Quatre Danses polonaises, and some guitar works, such as Hommage à Lech Walesa and Hommage à Chopin. His music is often said to be primarily neoclassical, drawing on his Polish Jewish heritage as well as his French musical influences.[1]

Early life and heritage[edit]

Tansman was born and raised in the Polish city of Łódź during the era when Poland did not exist as an independent state, being part of Tsarist Russia.

The composer wrote the following about his childhood and heritage in a 1980 letter to an American researcher:

"... my father's family came from Pinsk and I knew of a famous rabbi related to him. My father died very young, and there were certainly two, or more branches of the family, as ours was quite wealthy: we had in Lodz several domestics, two governesses (French and German) living with us etc. My father had a sister who settled in Israel and married there. I met her family on my [concert] tours in Israel. ... My family was, as far as religion is concerned, quite liberal, not practicing. My mother was the daughter of Prof. Leon Gourvitch, quite a famous man."[citation needed]


Though he began his musical studies at the Łódź Conservatory, his doctoral study was in law at the University of Warsaw. Shortly after completing his studies, Tansman moved to Paris, where his musical ideas were accepted and encouraged by mentors and musical influences Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, as opposed to the more conservative musical climate in his native Poland. While in Paris, Tansman associated with a crowd of foreign-born musicians known as the École de Paris; though Honegger and Milhaud tried to persuade him to join Les Six, he declined, stating a need for creative independence. Tansman later wrote a biography of Stravinsky that was extremely well received.

Tansman used to describe himself as a French–Polish composer; he spoke French at home and married a French pianist, Colette Cras, daughter of the French composer and Admiral Jean Cras.

In 1941, Tansman fled Europe, as his Jewish background put him in danger with Hitler's rise to power. He moved to Los Angeles, thanks to the efforts of his friend Charlie Chaplin in founding a committee visa, where he soon joined the circle of famous emigrated artists that included Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and others. Tansman composed the score for at least three Hollywood movies: Flesh and Fantasy, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and a biopic of the Australian medical researcher Sister Elizabeth Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell. He scored six films in all. For the 1946 Academy Awards ceremony, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, for Paris Underground. There was a huge field of 21 nominations, and the winner was Miklós Rózsa for Spellbound.

When Alexandre Tansman returned to Paris after the war, his European musical career started again all over Europe and he composed his main works, which were immediately played by the best orchestras and conductors. In many works, Tansman returned to his musical roots, drawing on his Jewish and Polish background to create some of his greatest works. During the last period of his life, he began to reestablish connections to Poland, though his career and family kept him in France, where he lived until his death in Paris in 1986.

Today, the Alexandre Tansman Competition for promising musicians is held in his honour every other year in his birthplace of Łódź, in order to promote his music and the local culture. Notable students of Tansman include Yüksel Koptagel, Turkish composer and pianist.


Tansman was not only an internationally recognized composer, but was also a virtuoso pianist. From 1932–33, Tansman performed worldwide for audiences including Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Mahatma Gandhi; he was regarded as one of the greatest Polish musicians. Later he performed five concert tours in the United States, including as a soloist under Serge Koussevitsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as having a thriving career in France as a concert performer.

Many musicologists have said that Tansman's music is written in the French neoclassical style of his adopted home, and the Polish styles of his birthplace, drawing on his Jewish heritage. Already on the edge of musical thought when he left Poland (critics questioned his chromatic and sometimes polytonal writing), he adopted the extended harmonies of Ravel in his work and later was compared to Alexander Scriabin in his departure from conventional tonality.

One of Tansman's letters states that "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."[citation needed] After Chopin, Tansman may be the leading proponent of traditional Polish forms such as the polonaise and the mazurka; they were inspired by and often written in homage to Chopin.[citation needed] For these pieces, which ranged from lighthearted miniatures to virtuoso showpieces, Tansman drew on traditional Polish folk themes and adapted them to his distinctive neoclassical style. However, he did not write straight settings of the folk songs themselves, as he states in a radio interview: "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."[citation needed]

Tansman wrote more than 300 works, including 7 operas, 11 ballets, 6 oratorios, 80 orchestral pages (with 9 symphonies), and numerous works of chamber music, among which are 8 string quartets, 8 concerti, about 100 pages for piano, many pages for the radio, and many works for children. He is also known for his guitar pieces, mostly written for Andrés Segovia – in particular the "Cavatine" and the Suite in modo polonico (1962), a collection of Polish dances. Segovia frequently performed the work in recordings and on tour; it is today part of the standard repertoire. Tansman's music has been performed by musicians such as Segovia, Walter Gieseking, José Iturbi, Jascha Heifetz, Jane Bathori, Joseph Szigeti, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Igor Zubkovsky, and Christopher Parkening. Almost all his works have been now recorded on CDs. One can consult his discography on his website : ""

Selected works[edit]

Tansman's many hundreds of compositions include:

  • Petite Suite for piano (1917–19)
  • 8 Mélodies japonaises, voice and orchestra (1918)
  • Le Jardin du paradis, ballet (1922)
  • Légende, orchestra (1923)
  • Trois Pièces de piano (1923)
  • Piano Concerto no. 1 (1925)
  • La Nuit kurde, opera (1927)
  • Piano Concerto no. 2 (1927)
  • Suite pour deux pianos et orchestre (1928)
  • Suite - Divertissement for piano quartet (1929)
  • Cinq Pièces for violin and small orchestra (1930)
  • Concertino for piano and orchestra (1931)
  • Rapsodie hébraïque, orchestra (1933)
  • Fantaisie pour Cello & Orchestre ou Piano (1934)
  • orchestration of Federico Mompou's piano suite Scènes d'enfants (1936)
  • Concerto for viola and orchestra (1936–7)
  • Violin Concerto (1937)
  • Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (1937)
  • La Toison d'or (The Golden Fleece), opera (1938)
  • 24 Intermezzi for piano (1939–1940)
  • Valse-Impromptu for piano (1940)
  • Rapsodie polonaise, orchestra (1940)
  • Pièce concertante (Konzertstück) for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1943)
  • Adam and Eve, Part 3 of Genesis Suite, for narrator and orchestra, collaboration with Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch and Nathaniel Shilkret, after Genesis (1944)
  • Partita no. 2 for piano and small orchestra (1944)
  • Concertino for guitar and orchestra (1945)
  • Isaïe le prophète, choir and orchestra (1950)
  • Cavatine, for guitar (1951)
  • Concertino for oboe, clarinet and string orchestra (1952)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
  • Hommage à Manuel de Falla for guitar and chamber orchestra (1954)
  • 4 mouvements symphoniques, for orchestra (1956)
  • Concerto for clarinet and orchestra (1957)
  • Sabbataï Zévi, le faux messie, opera (1957–8)
  • Suite, for bassoon and piano (1960)
  • Musique de cour for guitar and chamber orchestra (1960)
  • Psaumes, for tenor solo, choir, and orchestra (1960–61)
  • Suite in modo polonico, for guitar (1962)
  • Cello Concerto (1963–64)
  • Hommage à Chopin, for guitar (1966)
  • Suite concertante, for oboe and chamber orchestra (1966)
  • Concertino for flute, piano and string orchestra (1968)
  • Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, for orchestra (1972)
  • Les dix Commandements, orchestra (1978–9)
  • Musique pour harpe et orchestre à cordes (1981)
  • Hommage à Lech Walesa, for guitar (1982)
  • "Musique pour Clarinette Si flat et Quatuor à cordes (1984?)
  • film music: Poil de Carotte (1932), Flesh and Fantasy (1942), Paris Underground (1945), Destiny (1944), Sister Kenny (1946), The Bargee (1964)
  • 9 symphonies (1917; 1926; Symphonie concertante [Symphonie no. 3] pour violon, alto, violoncelle, piano et orchestre 1931; 1939; 1942; In memoriam 1944; Lyrique 1944; Musique pour orchestre 1948; 1957–8)
  • 8 string quartets (1917; 1922; 1925; 1935; 1940; 1944; 1947; 1956)
  • 7 Novelettes, for piano
  • Variations on a Scriabin Theme, for guitar
  • Sonatine, for bassoon and piano

Selected recordings[edit]


  1. ^ Pierre Guillot Hommage au compositeur Alexandre Tansman: (1897-1986)


External links[edit]