“Marvellous, wonderful, splendid: you are a genius!” George Gershwin declared to Tansman one evening in 1927 after the triumphant premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in Boston. The piece, which was dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, was reprised by pianist Robert Schmitz at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with great success the following summer, with an audience of almost 20,000 people. In the absence of the composer, the cheers were aimed at the dedicatee who was obliged to go up on stage.
Born in Poland, Tansman received the support of Ravel; upon his arrival in Paris, he immediately recognised that the young composer had charm and talent. Soon afterwards the best conductors of that time started to conduct his music: Golschmann, Mengelberg, Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Monteux. In 1932-33 Tansman did a world tour as a composer and pianist, which took him to the USA, Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the East Indies and Egypt. During his stint in New York, his Quatre danses polonaises [Four Polish Dances] were played by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Toscanini. This journey confirmed his unflagging interest for the diversity of cultures around the world.
Tansman stated, “I do not claim to be a modern composer; I am a musician of my time. That means that I try to follow the fundamental and unchanging purpose of music through the resources of my time…”
Throughout his work, he favoured the aesthetic attitude concerning intelligent control of the development of sensitivity. His creation, with polystylistic tendencies, is the result of a cultural and intellectual syncretism, the fruit of his Polish and Hebrew origins and his biographical trajectory. He also integrates sound rhythms and forms that are close to jazz, and is inspired by the refined sounds of music from the Far East.
From his very first compositions, again in Poland, he began experimenting with new harmonic combinations which bring to mind Stravinsky or Milhaud’s polytonal sounds, which he didn’t even know then, even if he would never stop building melodic lines with the modal inflexions of Polish music. His music often verges on atonal with the use of a heightened chromaticism; in his later years it was even enriched with clustered harmonic colorations or dodecaphonic allusions.
His rhythmic language incorporates elements from Polish dances (Symphony No. 2, 1926), possesses a Central European vigour not unlike Bartók (Triptyque) or borrows from jazz (Symphonie concertante, 1931).
When he was young he did some careful study in counterpoint. The fugue, designed as a driving sound process (final of Symphony No. 4, 1939) and not as a scholastic form, remained present until his very last pieces.
Because Tansman’s music has a life force, a certain impetuosity in his lively movements that are based on dynamic sound elements and generated almost organically, and has a form directed towards a climax rather than based on a traditional theme. In the slow movements, by contrast, the internalised character, meditative and questioning, allows a lyricism to bloom that sometimes takes a turn towards an aria.
From 1954 onwards, he expanded his orchestration by bringing keyboards (piano, celesta), vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel and other percussion to the forefront; their use can be likened to the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan.
As was the case with Janáček, there was no perceived decline in the brilliantly inventive inspiration that remained until his final compositions.
© 2016 Gérald Hugon
Tansman - Quatre Mouvements pour orchestre (excerpt)
Tansman - Six Mouvements pour orchestre à cordes (excerpt)
Tansman - Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (excerpt)
Tansman - Rapsodie polonaise (excerpt)
Tansman - Cappricio pour orchestre (excerpt)
Tansman - Concertino pour piano et orchestre (excerpt)
Tansman - Concerto pour orchestre (excerpt)
Tansman - Concerto pour violon et orchestre (excerpt)
Tansman - Elégie (excerpt)
Tansman - Symphonie n° 8 (excerpt)