1897-1919 : birth and studies in Poland
Alexander Tansman is born in Łódź on June 11 1897. His father, Mosze Tansman (photo 1) and his mother, Hanna Gurwicz (photo 2) belong to the Jewish upper-middle class, cultured and music lover. They take particularly care of their children’s education, Alexander, called Sacha, and his elder sister, Teresa.
Sacha begins to compose « in the style of Chopin » at a very early age. Thanks to studies at the secondary school of Łódź in numerus clausus (photo 3), the young adolescent will then be allowed to accede to the University of Warsaw. In Łódź, he studies simultaneously piano, harmony and music theory with Piotr Rytel. It is in Warsaw, where he runs at once Law and Philosophy studies and musical studies at the Conservatory, that Tansman will assert his vocation of composer, encouraged by some, but discouraged by the Polish critics. In fact, though he knows nothing about the Western musical movements of the time, he uses polytonal harmony, resolutions of chords beyond the limits of functional harmony. Thanks to a competition of composition, organized in Poland, which was once more independent, the young man wins the three first prizes under three different pseudonyms. He obtains his passport from the first President of the Polish Republic, Ignacy Paderewski, and decides to go to Paris at the end of 1919.
1919-1941 : Paris and the fulfilment of his musical career
His musical career is the fruit of a providential meeting with Maurice Ravel, who introduces him in the best « salons » (meeting places of the artists), to his publishers and to a great number of performers. Thus, he becomes soon a member of the Parisian musical life (photo 4). He makes friends with the musicians of the « Groupe des Six » and sees frequently the most important musical personalities of the time : Bartók, Gershwin, Honegger, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Roussel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc. (photo 5). His works are quickly played in Paris and then, in Europe and the United States. Thanks to his talent of pianist, he can play his own works (photo 6). The commissions are more and more numerous, as well as the tours, in particular the American ones, with Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, Golschmann, Monteux, Mengelberg, Toscanini, Serafin, Stokowski, etc. (photos 7 & 8). A first monograph, Alexander Tansman, Polish Composer, is published in 1930. He is a member, in the thirties, of a group called « l’École de Paris », together with composers from the Center and Eastern Europe : Tcherepnine, Martinu, Mihalovici, Harsanyi. During his American tour in 1927-1928, the composer meets Gershwin and Chaplin and makes friends with them. He dedicates to the latter his Second Concerto for piano and orchestra (photo 9). In America, he frequents, together with Gershwin (and Ravel during his first tour) the night-clubs, and thus, numerous influences of jazz can be found in some of his works (photo 10). In 1932-1933, he makes a tour around the world, where he will have the occasion to meet Gandhi, the Emperor of Japan… So he enriches his musical language with oriental rythms and harmonies (photo 11 ou 11bis).
In 1937, he marries the pianist Colette Cras (photo 12 ou 12bis), daughter of the composer and Admiral Jean Cras), and one year later, he decides to take the French nationality. Because of the tragic shadow which spreads gradually in Europe, his works are forbidden in several countries from 1938, and in France with the Laws of Vichy. His name appears now on the blacklist (Entartekunst) and he is obliged to flee to Nice with his family (enlarged with two little girls, Mireille and Marianne), where he will stay from June 1940 to August 1941.
1941-1946 : the exile in the United States
Thanks to a committee set up by Chaplin, Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Stokowski, Mitropoulos and Golschmann, the Tansman family is able to go into exile in the United States (photo 13). As soon as he reaches the United States, Alexander Tansman is awarded the Coolidge Medal for his 4th piano Sonata. Shortly afterwards, he settles with his family in Los Angeles, where he will live till April 1946. During these years of exile, he composes many important works, among which three Symphonies (5th, 6th, 7th)… and in the meantime, he writes a series of film scores in order to provide security for his family. He makes numerous tours, conducting and playing his own works in the most important towns (photo 14). It is around this time that Tansman makes strong friends with Stravinsky (photo 15), whom he will always admire as man and composer. Thus, as soon as he comes back to France, he will write an important monography, Igor Stravinsky, afterwards, numerous articles, and at the composer’s death, his splendid Stèle in memoriam Stravinsky. In Hollywood, where have settled a great number of artists and writers exiled from all over the world, Alexander Tansman appears among the composers who are most played. However, he cannot adjust to the American mentality and he is homesick of Europe, and particularly of Paris. He decides then to return to France, which he considers as his chosen country.
1946-1986 : contrasted years
Shortly afterwards his return to France, in April 1946, Tansman celebrates his fiftieth birthday with numerous tours in Europe. Sacha and Colette Tansman play together the concertant works for piano in many countries. The French Radio commissions him many works, Tansman festivals are organized, his career seems to have taken off well again… except in Poland. The death of his wife Colette in 1953 is the most painful loss of his life. However, his creativity is more and more prolific and his works of that time show a great maturity, among which : the oratorio Isaïe le prophète and the operas, Le Serment, Sabbataï Zevi. He continues to privilege symphonic music and chamber music.
During the seventies, in France, his music is described as too « neoclassical » and isolates/cuts him from the musical life, just like other composers of his generation. However, Poland discovers him gradually. After about fifty years, Tansman returns to his native country. He is welcomed as the « child prodigy of Łódź » ; festivals, articles, interviews are devoted to him (photo 16). And above all, the first Polish biography, written by Janusz Cegiella, in collaboration with the composer, gives him the popularity for which he had always longed (of which he had always dreamed) among his compatriots. He is awarded numerous Polish decorations, among which the one of « Merit of Culture » (photo 17) and is commissioned by the State (Sinfonietta N° 2). One of his last works is a mazurka for guitar, Hommage à Lech Walesa (photo 18). In 1977, he is honoured also by Belgium and he is elected to the Belgium Royal Academy, in the Fine Arts class, replacing Dimitri Shostakovitch (photo 19). In France, he is awarded the title of Order of Arts and Letters (Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres) in 1986 (photo 20). Alexander Tansman will not live enough however to see the independence of his native country and he will be awarded post mortem « Doctor honoris causa of the Music Academy of Łódź ». From 1996, an International Competition Alexander Tansman is organized in his native town in November every two years (photo 21 ou 21bis).
He dies in Paris on November 15 1986.
Tansman’s artistic heritage includes more than 300 works for various instrumental and vocal groups, among which 7 operas, 11 ballets, 6 oratorios, 80 orchestral scores (among which 9 Symphonies), many works of chamber music, 8 Concerti for all the instruments, about a hundred pages for piano, etc., a great number of stage music and film scores, and many works for children.
(But let the composer express his own concept of creation )
« […] I think personally that in music present and past are linked together […]. I don’t want to be a modern composer. I think that this expression is too equivocal for its very roots, implying fashion. I want to be a musician of my time, that is, try to pursue the fundamental and unchangeable aim of music with the means of my time, or rather with the means acquired by my time through its evolution ».