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Alexandre Tansman (Composer, Arranger)

Born: June 12, 1897 - Łódź, Poland (then part of Tsarist Russia)
Died: November 15 - 1986, Paris, France

Alexandre [Alexander] Tansman was Polish-born composer and virtuoso pianist. He spent his early years in his native Poland, but lived in France for most of his life. His music is primarily neoclassical, drawing on his Polish and Jewish heritage as well as his French musical influences.


Alexandre Tansman wrote the following about his childhood and heritage in a 1980 letter to an American researcher: "... my father's family came from Pinsk and I knew of a famous rabbi related to him. My father died very young, and there were certainly two, or more branches of the family, as ours was quite wealthy: we had in Lodz several domestics, two governesses (French and German) living with us etc. My father had a sister who settled in Israel and married there. I met her family on my [concert] tours in Israel. ... My family was, as far as religion is concerned, quite liberal, not practicing. My mother was the daughter of Prof. Leon Gourvitch, quite famous man."

Though 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, Alexandre 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 I. Stravinsky that was extremely well-received.)

Alexandre Tansman always described himself as a Polish composer, though he spoke French at home and married a French pianist, Colette Cras. In 1941, fleeing 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 getting him a visa), where he made the acquaintance of Arnold Schoenberg. Tansman composed the score for at least two Hollywood movies - Flesh and Fantasy, starring Barbara Stanwyck; and a biopic of the Australian medical researcher Sister Elizabeth Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell. He scored six films in all. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1946 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).

Though Alexandre Tansman returned to Paris after the war, his disappearance from the European musical scene left him behind the musical currents of the time, and no longer fresh in the minds of the public, which slowed his previously fast-rising career. No longer in tune with the French fashions, which had moved on to the avant-garde style, Tansman returned to his musical roots, drawing on his Jewish and Polish background to create some of his greatest works. During this time he began to reestablish connections to Poland, though his career and family kept him in France, where he lived until his death in 1986.

According to the Paris-based Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs, Alexandre Tansman used the name "Stan Alson" when he composed jazz music.

Today the Alexandre Tansman Competition for promising musicians is held in his honor every other year in his birthplace of Łódź, in order to promote his music and the local culture.


Alexandre Tansman was not only an internationally recognized composer, but was also a virtuoso pianist. From 1932-1933 he 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 USA, including as a soloist under Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as having a thriving career in France as a concert performer.

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."[citation needed] After Frédéric 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 F. 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."

Alexandre Tansman is perhaps best known for his guitar pieces, mostly written for Andrés Segovia - in particular the Suite in modo polonico (1962), a collection of Polish dances. Andrés 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 Andrés Segovia, Walter Gieseking, José Iturbi, Jane Bathori, Joseph Szigeti, Pablo Casals, and Gregor Piatigorsky and most recently Chandos Records has increased his profile, with the start of a series of his orchestral works, recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oleg Caetani.

Selected 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)
Konzertstck for the Left Hand (1943)
Serenade no. 3 (1943)
Genesis, narrator and orchestra, collaboration with
Arnold Schoenberg, Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Toch, Nathaniel Shilkret, after Genesis (1944)
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)

Chamber Music:
Tansman wrote nine string quartets and numerers other chamber pieces, from duets to octets.

Solo Piano:
Tansman wrote nearly 100 works for piano: sonatas, sonatinas, ballades, mazurkas, preludes, suites, and an array of short character pieces.

Works for Choir & Orchestra:
Isaie le Prophete English text by Martin Lindsay translated into French by the composer (1950)
Prologue et Cantate text excerptefrom Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9 (1958)
Psaumes 118, 119 et 120 text adapted to French by Ren
é Dumesnil (1961)

La Nuit kurde (1927) lyric drama in three acts on a text by Jean-Richard Bloch
La Toison d'Or (1938) comic oin 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 Kinderstcke, 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.

Film Music:
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)

Source: Polish Music Center Website (1999-2001; Author: Maja Trochimczyk); Wikipedia Website [based on Caroline Rae: "Alexandre Tansman". Grove Music Online, ed. L Macy (accessed March 21, 2005); Anne Girardot, Richard Langham Smith: "Alexandre Tansman". Grove Music Online (OperaBase), ed. L Macy (accessed March 21, 2005)]
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2009)

Alexandre Tansman: Short Biography | Orchestral Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Poilish Music Center: Alexander Tansman
Alexandre Tansman (Wikipedia)

Alexandre Tansman (IMDB)


Anne Girardot: ansman, Alexander." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 18 (London: Macmillan, 1980)
Marc Honegger: Dictionnaire de la Musique: Les Hommes et leurs uvres [Dictionary of Music: The Men and Their Works], vol. 2 (Paris: Bordas, 1977)
Percy A. Scholes: Tansman, Alexander." In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, vol.2 (London: John Owen Ward, 1977)
David Ewen: 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)
Clifford McCarty: Film Composers In America: A Checklist of Their Work (Glendale, California: John Valentine, 1953)
Jay Robert Nash & Stanley Ralph Ross: The Motion Picture Guide, E-G-1927-1983 (Chicago: Cinebooks, Inc., 1986)
Robert Sabin: Alexandre Tansman. In International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 9th Edition (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964)
Nicolas Slonimsky: Alexandre Tansman. In Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: Schirmer, 1978)

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