MUSIQUE(S) - IMAGE(S) - Alexandre Tansman

MUSIQUE(S) - IMAGE(S) - Alexandre Tansman

Alexandre Tansman in Hollywood

The power of music set to images has never been more obvious than at the peak of Hollywood, from the 1930s to the 1960s, when the whole art world literally fertilised the big studio productions. The compositions “made in France” rarely come to mind when considering these years: if music history often cites the exiles, fertile and undoubtedly important, of Schoenberg, Korngold, and Weill (alongside Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang) to the United States, it often ignores the presence of "Parisian" composers. However, the tradition of French composers emigrating to the United States, started by Edgard Varèse (or Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Loewy in the visual arts), certainly continued during the context of the Second World War, as shown by Alexandre Tansman, born in Poland and a naturalised French citizen in 1938. 

Tansman is, with Honegger, "the" great symphonist of our publishing houses in the years preceding the rise of modernism. It was clear from the start of his career that his taste for instrumental colours and his grand sense of form in his concertante works from the 1930s placed him on the road to the Hollywood soundscapes. His artistic passport to California was obtained with the help of director Julien Duvivier (the visa was granted to him thanks to the help of Charlie Chaplin, no less). Their first collaboration in 1932 for the filmmaker’s famous The Red Head (a talkie) was unanimously praised. Their association became a staple of the Universal Pictures studios in Hollywood ten years later with Flesh and Fantasy, better known in France as Obsessions. The Tansmanian style, alternating tense harmonies and generously sweet colours, worked wonders, and unified a dramaturgical choice that could have seemed disjointed. Audiences (and critics) were certainly not mistaken, and Flesh and Fantasy remains a classic to this day. 


But real recognition came at the end of the war, with a subject close to the composer’s heart, more than ever decided to return to Europe: the occupation of his adopted country in Paris Underground by Gregory Ratoff (known in cinema history as the first step in Ingrid Bergman’s career). Tansman was nominated for his score, full of vigorously neo-romantic rubati, at the already legendary Oscars for the category "Best Music", a worthy praise for a composer unknown but a few years earlier and whose artistic future would henceforth be exclusively dedicated to the stage.  


Three quarters of a century after his Hollywood adventure, Tansman's music is now experienced and shared in concert and through recordings; his cycle of nine symphonies and his unique catalogue of concertos now awakens within us internal images rather than those of Julien Duvivier or other Hollywood filmmakers. However, the post-expressionist aesthetic so essential to these moments of audiovisual creation is not without its resonance in our own time, and its soundtrack moves us and speaks to us just as it moved and spoke to our grandparents. Tansman has remained, through the decades, our contemporary. 

Photos :
Alexandre Tansman © DR

Films : 

Julien Duvivier - Poil de Carotte (1932)
Julien Duvivier - Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
Gregory Ratoff - Paris Underground (1945)