Thursday, March 9, 2017

Homage to Alexander Tansman Conference in Wroclaw, Poland (Vol. 8, No. 4)

On March 13-14, 2017, International conference Homage to Aleksander Tansman (1897-1986) will celebrate the 120th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The conference will take place at the Karol Lipinski Academy of Music in Wroclaw, Poland and will gather an international array of scholars from Poland, France, and the U.S.  The poster and program of the conference are reproduced below. Tansman was one of the most prolific and fascinating composers of mazurkas, and other piano genres developed by Chopin. In fact, he even wrote a Homage a Chopin! So it is fitting to post this information here....

Music on YouTube: Rhapsoide hebraique for piano
Music on YouTube: Le tour de monde en miniature (first part, Malicki)


Tansman Society in Poland - Festivals and Competition of Musical Personalities

Les Amis d' Alexandre Tansman, Paris


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. 

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. 

Music on YouTube: Sonatine transatlantique (piano), foxtrot
Sonatine transatlantique (piano, Daniel Blumenthal) foxtrot
 Sonatine transatlantique (piano, Daniel Blumenthal), spiritual and blues.
Sonatine transatlantique, charleston (Daniel Blumenthal)
Music on YouTube: Symfonie Concertante (Symphony No. 3, 1931)

Tansman survived the war in the United States. 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 American friends, Charlie Chaplin, Serge Koussevitzky, Arturo Toscanini, Jasha Heifetz, and many others. 

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, Tansman thoroughly enjoyed his life in Hollywood, which he described as an ideal community of artists, a kind of a "contemporary Weimar" (in an interview translated by Jill Timmons and Sylvain Fremaux and published online in Polish Music Journal, vol. 1 no. 1, Summer 1998).

Music on YouTube: Piano Sonata No. 4 (dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 1941)
Recorded by Etcetera, excerpts:
1. Allegro deciso (Daniel Blumenthal)
2. Andante sostenuto (Daniel Blumenthal)
3. Adagio lamentoso (Daniel Blumenthal)

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.

Yet, he continued to compose music of increasing artistic merit and historical significance (opera Serment; oratorio Isaiah, The Prophet, Hommage a Chopin, symphonies, concertos, 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 Polish composer, 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 Walesa. 

Since 1996, an 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, Tansman Festivals, and other events associated with the composer.  The Foundation commissioned Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki to write a symphonic work for its festival; instead this composition become Gorecki's last symphony, Symphony No. 4 "Tansman Episodes"- including a musical epigram of Tansman's name quoted as a motive. On the occasion of the symphony's premiere in 2014, the Los Angeles Philharmonic posted a short film about Tansman on its website. It is now available on the Tansman Foundation website.  Andrzej Wendland documents this history in his book about the symphony and its connections to Tansman. 

Music on YouTube: Hommage a Chopin (guitar)

Tansman Bio on YouTube (2014):


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 (studied by Barbara Milewski in the U.S. and Anna Nowak in Poland).

An example of his folk-music settings may be provided by Quatre danses polonaises of 1931. 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 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 polaca 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 broadly defined 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.


"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, published in the Polish Music Journal, online 1998)]

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