Alexandre Tansman (Polish: Aleksander Tansman; 12 June 1897 – 15 November 1986) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of Jewish origin. He spent his early years in his native Poland, but lived in France for most of his life, being granted French citizenship in 1938. His Polish identity influenced several orchestral and chamber works, such as Rapsodie polonaise and Quatre Danses polonaises, and some guitar works, such as Hommage à Lech Walesa and Hommage à Chopin. His music is often said to be primarily neoclassical, drawing on his Polish Jewish heritage as well as his French musical influences.
The composer wrote the following about his childhood and heritage in a 1980 letter to an American researcher:
Although he began his musical studies at the Łódź Conservatory, his doctoral study was in law at the University of Warsaw. Shortly after completing his studies, Tansman moved to Paris, where his musical ideas were accepted and encouraged by mentors and musical influences Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, as opposed to the more conservative musical climate in his native Poland. While in Paris, Tansman associated with a crowd of foreign-born musicians known as the École de Paris; though Honegger and Milhaud tried to persuade him to join Les Six, he declined, stating a need for creative independence. Tansman later wrote a biography of Stravinsky that was extremely well received.
Tansman used to describe himself as a French–Polish composer; he spoke French at home and married a French pianist, Colette Cras, daughter of the French composer and Admiral Jean Cras.
In 1941, Tansman fled Europe, as his Jewish background put him in danger with Hitler's rise to power. He moved to Los Angeles, thanks to the efforts of his friend Charlie Chaplin in founding a committee visa, where he soon joined the circle of famous emigrated artists that included Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and others. Tansman composed the score for at least three Hollywood movies: Flesh and Fantasy, starring Barbara Stanwyck, a biopic of the Australian medical researcher Sister Elizabeth Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell and Paris Underground starring Constance Bennett. For the 1946 Academy Awards ceremony, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, for Paris Underground. There was a huge field of 21 nominations, and the winner was Miklós Rózsa for Spellbound. Tansman also composed scores for films made and released outside the United States.
When Alexandre Tansman returned to Paris after the war, his European musical career started again all over Europe and he composed his main works, which were immediately played by the best orchestras and conductors. In many works, Tansman returned to his musical roots, drawing on his Jewish and Polish background to create some of his greatest works. During the last period of his life, he began to reestablish connections to Poland, though his career and family kept him in France, where he lived until his death in Paris in 1986.
Today, the Alexandre Tansman Competition for promising musicians is held in his honour every other year in his birthplace of Łódź, in order to promote his music and the local culture. Notable students of Tansman include Yüksel Koptagel, Turkish composer and pianist.
Tansman was not only an internationally recognized composer, but was also a virtuoso pianist. From 1932–33, Tansman performed worldwide for audiences including Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Mahatma Gandhi; he was regarded as one of the greatest Polish musicians. Later he performed five concert tours in the United States, including as a soloist under Serge Koussevitsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as having a thriving career in France as a concert performer.
Many musicologists have said that Tansman's music is written in the French neoclassical style of his adopted home, and the Polish styles of his birthplace, drawing on his Jewish heritage. Already on the edge of musical thought when he left Poland (critics questioned his chromatic and sometimes polytonal writing), he adopted the extended harmonies of Ravel in his work and later was compared to Alexander Scriabin in his departure from conventional tonality.
One of Tansman's letters states that "it is obvious that I owe much to France, but anyone who has ever heard my compositions cannot have doubt that I have been, am and forever will be a Polish composer." After Chopin, Tansman may be the leading proponent of traditional Polish forms such as the polonaise and the mazurka; they were inspired by and often written in homage to Chopin. For these pieces, which ranged from lighthearted miniatures to virtuoso showpieces, Tansman drew on traditional Polish folk themes and adapted them to his distinctive neoclassical style. However, he did not write straight settings of the folk songs themselves, as he states in a radio interview: "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."
Tansman wrote more than 300 works, including 7 operas, 11 ballets, 6 oratorios, 80 orchestral pages (with 9 symphonies), and numerous works of chamber music, among which are 8 string quartets, 8 concerti, about 100 pages for piano, many pages for the radio, and many works for children. He is also known for his guitar pieces, mostly written for Andrés Segovia – in particular the "Cavatine" and the Suite in modo polonico (1962), a collection of Polish dances. Segovia frequently performed the work in recordings and on tour; it is today part of the standard repertoire. Tansman's music has been performed by musicians such as Segovia, Walter Gieseking, José Iturbi, Jascha Heifetz, Jane Bathori, Joseph Szigeti, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Igor Zubkovsky, and Christopher Parkening. Almost all his works have been now recorded on CDs. One can consult his discography on his website : "alexandre-tansman.com"
Tansman's many hundreds of compositions include: