(b. Lodz, Poland, 12 June 1897 – d. Paris, 15 November 1986)
Among the wealth of influential artists, musicians and thinkers working in twentieth-century Paris was Polish-born Jewish composer and pianist Alexandre Tansman. Although considered a significant artistic figure in Poland today, the work of Alexandre Tansman has not received a great deal of attention from musicologists writing in English. Despite moving in circles which included such names as Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Sergei Prokofiev and members of Les Six (Granat-Janki, 2001), Tansman has posthumously fallen into relative obscurity. Considering what he achieved in his lifetime this is both surprising and disappointing.
Born in Łódź in 1897, Tansman began writing music at the age of eight, and studied at the city’s conservatoire before undertaking law and philosophy qualifications in Warsaw (Butterfield, 1990: 30). It is reported that he displayed surprising musical maturity at an early stage, writing in atonal and polytonal styles having apparently never heard of Arnold Schoenberg (Timmons/Frémaux, 1998). His precocity is all the more noteworthy given that between 1795 and 1918 a large part of the Polish population and former territory came under the rule of the Russian Empire (Nowak, 1997). Poland at this time was subjected to ‘russification’ and denationalisation – deliberate erasure of traces of former Polish rule or Polish cultural influence – to the extent that, in some areas of life, Polish citizens were forbidden to speak their own language (Porter, 2001: 79). In fact, one former student described Warsaw University as ‘a tool for aggressive russifying activities, an institution designed for the innoculation against “knowledge”, for bureaucratic censorship and certification’ (Porter, 2001: 80); clearly this was not a regime which would naturally celebrate free and progressive art, let alone free and progressive art created by Polish citizens. Accordingly, Poland during Tansman’s early career nurtured a kind of cultural isolationism which music from other countries struggled to permeate: for example, at the time, Claude Debussy was little known in Poland – and Maurice Ravel still less so (Timmons/Frémaux, 1998).
In spite of what might have seemed a discouragingly reactionary background in light of his interest in more modernist styles, Tansman had a measure of early musical success in Poland. In 1919 – a year after Poland regained independence – he entered multiple compositions under various pseudonyms in the Polish National Music Competition and apparently won first, second and third prize, much to the disbelief of Warsaw music critics as well as his peers. Nonetheless, the general consensus at the time was that his music was too ‘audacious’ and dissonant, and the wider critical response to his work was negative (Timmons/Frémaux, 1998). …
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210 x 297 mm