Aleksander (or Alexandre) Tansman (b. Łódz, 1897; d. Paris, 1986) was a composer, conductor, and pianist. He studied at the Lodz Conservatory (with Piotr Rytel) and took courses in law and philosophy at Warsaw University. In 1919 he settled in Paris where he met the leading artists of his time, including Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and others. As a pianist he toured Europe, Canada, and the Middle East with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. His music was performed by the most famous soloists and ensembles of his time; his champions included conductors Stokowski and Toscanini. During this stage of his life, Tansman frequently described himself as “un compositeur polonais” but spoke French at home with his French wife – a talented pianist, Colette Cras – and two daughters (Tansman’s first wife, also French, died early in their marriage). Returning to Warsaw was not an issue because of marriage and career requirements. Tansman was a world-famous virtuoso who frequently performed with the greatest orchestras and conductors, mostly based in France. After Hitler’s rise to power, the composer gradually reclaimed his Jewish roots. Tansman survived the war in the United States (California). He remained an outsider at heart, observing the follies and vagaries of his host nation from an internal distance and with a slight dislike, much like Bela Bartók. In 1946, after a year’s delay caused by his wife`s illness, the family returned to Paris. The decision to go home to France may have been ill-fated for Tansman’s career. Nationalism and avant-garde triumphs in France coupled with a cultural isolationism in Poland, where – as an emigrant who remained in the West – he was not performed and not well known for years, caused a gradual disappearance of Tansman’s music from the spotlight. His continuing adherence to the neoclassical style may have also contributed to his artistic isolation.
Yet, he continued to compose music of increasing artistic merit and historical significance (opera Serment; oratorio Isaiah, The Prophet, orchestral Hommage ŕ Chopin, Rhapsodie polonaise, etc.). The need to reaffirm personal roots, which were earlier overshadowed by an allegiance to Polish culture and the cosmopolitan music world, resulted also in the creation of what Tansman considered one of his best works, the opera Sabbatai Zevi, le faux Messie (1958). While returning to his Jewish heritage, Tansman continued seeing himself as a Polishcomposer, keenly interested in the matters of his home country [“kraj rodzinny” in his letters]. Stylized versions of Polish dances, especially the mazurka, were a staple in his compositional repertoire; in 1980, for instance, he wrote a Mazurka for Lech Wa sa. In 1996-1997, the Year of Tansman, Poland saw many commemorations, including a special scholarly session and numerous concerts, held mostly in his home town, ód . A new organization dedicated solely to furthering his cause and promoting his music emerged under the leadership of Andrzej Wendland. The Fundacja Kultury im. A. Tansmana organizes the Tansman Performance Competitions and other events associated with the composer.
Tansman’s renewed contacts with Poland and Polish culture relied in part on a small group of musical friends, including musicologist Tadeusz Kaczy ski (d. 1999) whose correspondence with the Paris-based composer is now partly held in the PMC Manuscript Collection. The letters show a growing friendship and closer personal contacts indicated by changing forms of addresses (from “Drogi i Szanowny Panie” [Dear and Respected Mr.] to “Drogi Tadeuszu”) and signatures, from “A. Tansman,” to “Aleksander” and the intimate diminutive, “Sasza” or, once, “Alek.” All the letters are written in Polish; many express a longing for the composer’s country of birth and a concern for a place of his own in the realm of Polish culture. These 16 letters with 4 envelopes were donated to the PMC Collection by Joanna Kaczy ska.
Returning to Warsaw was not an issue because of marriage and career requirements. Tansman was a world-famous virtuoso who frequently performed with the greatest orchestras and conductors, mostly based in France. The political situation in Poland was also a factor. In the 1930s a growing wave of anti-semitism swept through Poland; after World War II, the policies of the communist regime included provocations and mass persecutions (1946, 1968) coupled with purposeful eradication of the remnants of Jewish culture. In both periods, Poland was not a country that an established Jewish composer from France would want to return to. While living in France, Tansman did not seek out the Polish community for cultural companionship; instead, he enjoyed being a member of Europe’s cultural elite, the international musical establishment. Since his arrival in Paris he was a protégé of Maurice Ravel, and a socialite, on friendly terms with the whole artistic world. After Hitler’s rise to power, the composer gradually reclaimed his Jewish roots.
Tansman survived the war in the United States; how did he find his way to California? After Hitler’s army attacked France and the Vichy government began deporting Jews, Tansman’s French wife protected him while they awaited for an American visa, granted thanks to incredible efforts of Tansman’s friend, Charlie Chaplin. What was his reaction to his new country? He remained an outsider at heart, observing the follies and vagaries of his host nation at a distance and with a slight dislike, much like Bela Bartók. Their comments about how ridiculous the American ways were, are somewhat similar in tone – with an echo of a European feeling of superiority, and a contempt for the brazen and uncultured money-making business people. Yet, he thoroughly enjoyed his life in Hollywood, which he described as an ideal community of artists, a kind of a “little Weimar” (in an interview translated by Jill Timmons and Sylvain Fremaux and published online in Polish Music Journal, vol. 1 no. 1, Summer 1998.
However, he was not able to adjust to the “American way of life”, and in 1946, after a year delay caused by an illness of his wife, the family returned to Paris. The decision to go home to France may have been ill-fated for Tansman’s career. The post-war years are marked by a growing artistic isolation of this self-proclaimed Polish composer, who distrusted avant-garde trends and remained faithful to the aesthetics of neoclassicism. Nationalism and avant-garde triumphs in France coupled with a cultural isolationism in Poland, where – as an emigrant who remained in the West – he was not performed and not well known for years, caused a gradual disappearance of Tansman’s music from the spotlight.
He continued to compose music of an increasing artistic merit and historical significance. The need to reaffirm personal roots, which were earlier overshadowed by an allegiance to Polish culture and the cosmopolitan music world, resulted also in the creation of what Tansman considered one of his best works, the opera Sabbatai Zevi, le faux Messie (1958).
While returning to his Jewish roots, Tansman continued seeing himself as a Polish composer, keenly interested in the matters of his country; in 1980 he wrote Mazurka for Lech Walesa. He also enjoyed being a French citizen who could not live outside of his beloved Paris.
We should conclude this brief foray into Tansman’s life with the statement that he was truly an European composer. But, if you look up Aleksander, or Alexandre Tansman in the New Grove Dictionary of Music And Musicians (no. 6, 1980) you will find out, in a very brief entry, that he is a “French composer of Polish descent”. This definition completely overlooks Tansman’s Jewishness and ignores the complexity and transformation of the composer’s self-awareness.
In 1996-1997, the Year of A. Tansman, Poland saw many commemorations, including a special scholarly session and numerous concerts, held mostly in his home-town, Łódz. A new organization dedicated solely to furthering his cause and promoting his music has emerged under the leadership of Andrzej Wendland. The Fundacja Kultury im. A. Tansmana organizes Tansman Performance Competitions and other events associated with the composer. The Foundation also maintains a Tansman web site.
List of Works
Music for Orchestra
Scherzo Sinfonico (1923)
Danse de la Sorcičre (1923)
Second Symphony in A Minor (1927)
Second Piano Concerto (1927)
Triptyque for string orchestra (1930)
Quatre Danses polonaises (1931)
Rapsodie hebraique (1933)
Rapsodie polonaise (1940)
Fifth Symphony in D (1942)
Konzertstück for the Left Hand (1943)
Serenade no. 3 (1943)
Partita no. 2 (1944)
Sixth Symphony “In memoriam” choral symphony based on a French text by the composer (1944)
Concerto for Orchestra (1955)
Stčle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1972)
Les dix commandements (1979)
Tansman wrote nine string quartets and numerers other chamber pieces, from duets to octets.
Tansman wrote nearly 100 works for piano: sonatas, sonatinas, ballades, mazurkas, preludes, suites, and an array of short character pieces.
Works for Choir and Orchestra
Isaie le Prophete English text by Martin Lindsay translated into French by the composer (1950)
Prologue et Cantate text excerpted from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9 (1958)
Psaumes 118, 119 et 120 text adapted to French by René Dumesnil (1961)
La Nuit kurde (1927) lyric drama in three acts on a text by Jean-Richard Bloch
La Toison d’Or (1938) comic opera in three acts on a libretto by Salvador de Madariaga
Le Serment (1953) lyric episode after Balza
Sabbatai Zevi, ou Le faux Messie (1958) lyric fresco on a libretto by Nathan Bistritzky
L’Usignolo di Boboli (1963) lyric tale in one act on a libretto by Mario Labroca
Georges Dandin (1974) comedy in three acts by Moličre
Music for Youth
Tansman is well known for his large collection of works for amateurs and children.
Pour les Enfants Books 1, 2, and 3 (1933)
Je joue pour Papa, Les Jeunes au Piano, Ten Diversions for the Young
Pianist, Les Jeunes au Piano, Piano in Progress, Zehn Kinderstücke, Happy Time
a series of gifts for his daughters Mireille and Marianne
Many easy pieces for string instruments and piano, violin duet, solo guitar, and piano trio.
Poil de Carotte directed by Julien Duvivier, Paris (1932)
Flesh and Fantasy directed by Julien Duvivier, Hollywood (1942)
Paris Underground directed by Gregory Ratoff, Hollywood (1945)
Destiny co-directed by Julien Duvivier, Hollywood (1945)
Sister Kenny directed by Dudley Nichols, Hollywood (1946)
The Bargee for Galton-Simpson Productions, London (1964)
Manuscripts at USC
14 Letters to Tadeusz Kaczyński from the 1960s through 1980s. Donated in June 2000 by Joanna Kaczyńska.
Overview of His Music
Tansman repeatedly expressed the conviction that his music is rooted in Polish culture, and he included Polish dances, rhythms, and topics in many pieces (e.g. cycles of Mazurkas, the Polish Rhapsody, works inspired by and dedicated to Chopin). Throughout his career, Tansman expressed his Polishness in music by composing more mazurkas, polonaises and obereks than almost any other composer after Chopin. His music created a new link in the history of this genre (now studied by Barbara Milewski at Princeton University).
An example of his folk-music settings may be provided by his Quatre danses polonaises of 1931, version for piano. The orchestral version of this work was first conducted in the U.S. by Arturo Toscanini. The last segment of the cycle could be said to epitomize Tansman as a Polish neoclassical composer: in this arrangement of the “oberek” the main theme is presented in a fugato, while the drones, harmonies, and melodies continue to mirror features of Polish folklore. Some of his piano pieces are very virtuosic (e.g. Etude-Scherzo) other works border on the entertaining and vacuous salon music (e.g. Le tour de monde en miniature cycle of miniatures).
The composer also cherished his Jewish heritage, expressing it in many works written throughout his career, e.g., the Hebrew Rhapsody (1938), oratorio Isaiah The Prophet (1950), Apostrophe to Sion (1978), and other pieces. In 1933, he composed a Hebrew Rhapsody (in two versions, with the piano one dedicated to the composer’s mother). This work was inspired by ancient melodies from Yemen, and began as an arrangement of these songs that so delighted the composer. After the war the composer worked on a monumental oratorio, Isaiah, The Prophet (for voices, mixed choir , and orchestra, 1950). There is much to be admired in this stark and complex work, cantorial singing style interspersed with sombre choral fugues and dramatic orchestral interludes. It is a compelling piece that badly needs a new recording.
One of the instruments that he favoured was the guitar for which he composed numerous Polish dances, e.g, Suite in Modo Polonico. The Suite (1962), commissioned by and dedicated to “the king of guitarists,” Andres Segovia, may be considered the crowning achievement among Tansman’s works for guitar. Segovia had requested the inclusion of several earlier works in this suite, such as the Mazurek of 1925, the Berceuse d’Orient, and Alla polacca of 1954. The celebrated guitarist recorded this virtuosic set of 10 short pieces five times and performed it during many concert tours, establishing the Suite as one of the staples of the guitar repertoire.
Tansman’s songs blend traits of his elegant neoclassicism with expressiveness; his harmonic inventiveness underlies the rich piano accompaniments. His Cinq melodies pour chant et piano (1927) use French texts by the composer’s first wife, Anna Eleonora; the songs are dedicated to personal friends and family members. For instance the fourth song, (Chats de gouttiere), is a humorous complaint against the brother of Tansman’s wife who had just emigrated to the U.S. The lyricism and humor of Anna Tansman’s texts is reflected in the music including national influences (no.2), elements of a stylized lullaby (no. 3), and an almost romantic poignancy (no. 5).
In general, Tansman’s music belongs to the realm of neoclassicism, enriched by a plurality of influences and models, including jazz, folk dances, and the music of the Far East. The author of a Javanese Dance, he also composed a Blues, an Oberek, and the virtuosic Mazurka & Toccata. During the post-war years he displayed no interest in avant-garde experimentation and remained faithful to his unique brand of the neoclassical style. Tansman’s extensive list of works contains compositions for the stage (operas and ballets), pieces for orchestra, chamber music, and songs in several languages. His music links intuition and spontaneity with a logical order of structure, virtuosity, and elegance. His individual style is characterized by clarity of form, lyrical expression, and the use of rich and varied instrumental colors.
In His Own Words
“Thus, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Poland. In regard to the importance of Slavic influence in my music, I can readily say that I followed the same path as Bartók or Manuel de Falla: folklore imaginé. I did not use popular themes per se. I used, however, their general melodic contour. Polish folklore is abundantly rich. I think that, along with Spanish folklore, it is the richest in possibilities. I was familiar with Polish folklore very early. My nanny used to sing peasant songs that were anonymous. They were not contemporary urban songs but songs that came from the villages. This folklore remained strongly present in my musical sensitivity but only as folklore imaginé. 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. But Polish character is not solely expressed through folklore. There is something intangible in my music that reveals an aspect of my Polish origin”.
[Tansman, radio Interviews edited by Timmons/Fremaux, 1967-1980 1998)]
Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart for your friendship during my whole visit to my home country [kraj rodzinny], which moved me profoundly. Indeed, I felt that I was taken care of by sincere friends and the last evening, with “my musicologists” evoked old memories of my youthful times and this return stirred a certain nostalgia in my heart. For the first time in so many years I did not have an impression of being a “foreigner” in my own country. Thank you very much for all that, with heartfelt greetings and with hope to meet you in Paris, Yours, Aleksander”.
[Tansman’s letter to Kaczyński, 2 February 1978]
Polskie Nagrania PNCD 073: Piano music: Rapsodie hebraique, Quatre danses polonaises, Le tour de monde en miniature (1990)
ETCETERA KTC 2017: String Quartets no. 2-8; Triptyque
ETCETERA KTC 2021: Piano sonatinas no. 1; no. 2, Transatlantique ; no. 3. Piano Sonatas no. 1 “Rustica”; no. 2; no. 3; no. 4; no. 5; Suite variee
MARCO POLO 8.223379: Symphony no. 5; Stele in memoriam Igor Strawinsky; Four Movements for Orchestra
MARCO POLO 8.223757: Concerto for Orchestra, Etudes, Capriccio for Orchestra (1994)
MARCO POLO 8.223690: Tansman – Guitar Works (Complete)
OLYMPIA OCD 685. Violin Concerto; Cinq Pičces pour violon et petit orchestre; Quatre Danses polonaises; Danse de la sorcičre; Rhapsodie polonaise. Beata Halska, violin/Polish Radio Orchestra Conducted by Bernard LeMonnier Olympia OCD 685 (DDD) Total Time: 65:32 (2000).
GIRARDOT, Anne. “Tansman, Alexander.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 18, London: Macmillan, 1980.
HONEGGER, Marc. Dictionnaire de la Musique: Les Hommes et leurs Œuvres [Dictionary of Music: The Men and Their Works], vol. 2, Paris: Bordas, 1977.
SCHOLES, Percy A. “Tansman, Alexander.” In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, vol.2, London: John Owen Ward, 1977.
EWEN, David. “Alexandre Tansman.” In Composers Since 1900. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1969.
_______. “Alexandre Tansman.” In Composers Since 1900, First Supplement. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1981.
McCARTY, Clifford. Film Composers In America: A Checklist of Their Work, Glendale, California: John Valentine, 1953.
NASH, Jay Robert and Stanley Ralph Ross.The Motion Picture Guide, E-G-1927-1983, Chicago: Cinebooks, Inc., 1986.
SABIN, Robert. “Alexandre Tansman.” In International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 9th Edition. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964.
SLONIMSKY, Nicolas. “Alexandre Tansman.” In Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Schirmer, 1978.
Books and Dissertations
BUTTERFIELD, Lorraine Lingle. An investigation of rhythm in the piano mazurkas of Alexandre Tansman: A guide for the piano instructor/performer Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1990.
CEGIEŁŁA, Janusz. Dziecko szczęścia, Aleksander Tansman i jego czasy [Child of luck, Alexandre Tansman and His Times]. 2 volumes. Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1986-1996. 2nd edition, Łódz: Fundacja Kultury im. A. Tansmana, 1998.
GRANAT-JANKI, Anna. Forma w Tworczosci Instrumentalnej Aleksandra Tansmana [Form in A.T. instrumental music]. Wroclaw: Academy of Music, 1995.
SCHWERKE, Irving. Alexandre Tansman, Compositeur polonais. Paris: Éditions Max Eschig, 1931.
Page updated on 28 June 2001.