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8.572266 - TANSMAN, A.: 24 Intermezzi / Petite Suite (Reyes)
Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986)
When the young Polish composer Alexandre Tansman, born on 12 June 1897 in Łódż, arrived in Paris in 1919, he could not possibly have imagined that his works would soon feature on the programmes of all the city’s major concert societies. Before long, however, he had joined the numbers of the most prominent French and other European musicians of the time, alongside such figures as Ravel, Schmitt, Roussel, Milhaud, Honegger, Stravinsky, Casella and Bartók. By November 1925 his renown had reached the other side of the Atlantic, with the American premières of his Danse de la sorcière (New York Philharmonic/Mengelberg) and Sinfonietta No. 1 (Boston Symphony/Koussevitzky). As well as Koussevitzky, conductors such as Golschmann, Monteux and Stokowski also began to take a serious interest in the young composer’s work. At Koussevitzky’s invitation, Tansman undertook his first tour of the United States in 1927–28, at the same time as Ravel and Bartók too were first touring the country. It was during this time that he met George Gershwin and Charlie Chaplin, to the latter of whom he dedicated his Second Piano Concerto, which had just been given its première by Koussevitzky in Boston. In 1932–33 Tansman became the first Western composer to undertake a real world tour. As he was travelling to New York he discovered that Toscanini was to conduct one of his works. The years leading up to the Second World War, however, saw an end to the programming of his music in certain parts of Europe.
A French citizen since 1 June 1938, Tansman was eligible for military service when war broke out in September 1939. Because of his linguistic skills, he was assigned to the propaganda ministry, where he worked under the writers Jean Giraudoux and Georges Duhamel. There in Paris, amid the air raids, Tansman composed the first two collections of his Intermezzi. His second daughter was born in February 1940, as a result of which he was allowed to leave his war work. On 12 June he and his family left Paris and, on Chaplin’s advice, settled soon afterwards near Nice, a town with an American consulate, making it, in principle, easier for him to communicate with the U.S. It was while living in Nice that he finished his third and fourth collections of Intermezzi. Having been written during times of such uncertainty, the Intermezzi are a form of intimate musical diary of a composer whose life was then divided between two continents, before he went into exile in the United States.
Alexandre Tansman’s 24 Intermezzi constitute an exceptional cycle in the piano literature, one that to some extent echoes Chopin’s 24 Préludes, such was their composer’s desire to create a series of pieces governed by their unity of mood, within a restricted formal framework. The emotional charge of these works reflects the volatile situation in which they were written, and the memories Tansman was struggling to leave behind, but there is a sense of rebellion mixed in as well. The music is reduced to the essential, so finely honed is every piece. Each of the four collections comprises six pieces, organized according to a carefully constructed progression.
While we do not know for sure the reason behind the composition of these works, the dedicatees of each collection were all significant figures in the composer’s life. Salvador de Madariaga was the former chief of the Disarmament Section at the League of Nations, later a minister in the Spanish government (1931–34), then Spanish ambassador to the United States and France, and also the librettist of Tansman’s charming light opera La Toison d’or (The Golden Fleece, 1938). Jean Marietti was the head of the publishing company Éditions Max Eschig and a close friend and supporter of the composer at this difficult time, while Marcel Mihalovici was his closest friend among the composers of the “Paris School”. Finally, there was Charlie Chaplin, who had set up a committee with others such as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz and Eugene Ormandy to help musicians escape from Europe, and of whom Tansman had great expectations.
Despite the well-known examples of Rousseau, Nietzsche and Adorno, all composers, and of Roland Barthes, a pianist and lover of Schumann’s music, it is unusual for renowned philosophers to be talented musicians as well. Vladimir Jankélévitch, however, was one such. In a letter to Tansman dated 27 December 1957, he recalled a moment of happiness at the piano in the company of the Intermezzi:
In addition to Jankélévitch’s words of praise, it is worth highlighting the harsh and rigorous counterpoint of No. 6, the Fauré-like suppleness of No. 7 and the unpredictable rhythmic fantasy of No. 8. The ninth Intermezzo, meanwhile, is a sombre and moving piece, one of the most dramatic in the series with its chromaticism and obsessively repeated quavers, and No. 10 is a kind of Prokofievian scherzo on a perpetual movement in staccato quavers with unusual appoggiaturas on double notes in the outer sections. No. 11 in G sharp minor again features strict counterpoint: a sort of homage to Bach, rather like an invention with a three-part subject, while No. 12 is a march with a four-note ostinato in the bass repeated 54 times, its dissonance expressing a sense of rage and repugnance in the face of the hideous barbarism of the war.
Three of the pieces in the third collection are particularly memorable for their intimate beauty and lyricism. No. 13 is one of Tansman’s loveliest pieces of writing, with warm, changing harmonies studded with chromatic progressions; No. 15 is more tranquil and more symmetrically constructed; and No. 17, with the sobbing, descending chromaticism at its heart, provides a grief-stricken climax to the set. No. 14 is in an attractive atonal idiom, a wonderfully pianistic work that acts as a powerful, resounding blast of fresh air, whereas No. 16’s continuously flowing semi-quaver movement, pianissimo throughout, seems to have come from a Chopin étude. The violent and brutal music of No. 18, perhaps less nihilistic and despairing in tone than No. 12, gives way in No. 19 to one of the most sublime and sophisticated of all these pieces. Here, in the style of a mazurka based on a theme in arabesques whose subtle rhythmic divisions conjure up Szymanowski, the composer recalls his Polish roots. No. 20 presents contrasting materials, alternating a Stravinskian rhythmic impulse and Baroque contrapuntal fingerings, while No. 22 features continuous light staccato with chromatic melodic contours and dotted with dissonances, into which on two occasions a Bartókian modal theme breaks through.
The tragic gravity of No. 21, with its pronounced chromaticism and dotted rhythms, makes it one of the composer’s finest works. He re-used it as the slow movement of his Piano Sonata No. 4 (1941). Tansman had a deep admiration for Brahms, who was perhaps his favourite composer. He loved his expressive restraint, the rigour of his formal construction, the soundness of his technique and his concentrated sense of purpose. The Hommage à Brahms (No. 23) has clear metrical and rhythmic similarities with the German master’s Intermezzo, Op. 76 No. 7. Finally, No. 24 is a lyrical berceuse, with warm harmonies, like a far-off memory of the composer’s peaceful childhood in Poland.
The Petite Suite is a 1919 anthology of seven short pieces probably written in the years just before Tansman moved to Paris. It is the first of the numerous collections of piano miniatures that he was to write throughout his life, and gives us an early glimpse of his inventiveness and the delight he took in musical spontaneity.
The Valse-Impromptu, somewhat reminiscent of Ravel, was written in Paris on 4 March 1940. It was commissioned by the Archives Internationales de la Danse, and dedicated to the Opéra de Paris’s star dancer, Lycette Darsonval.
© 2010 Gérald Hugon
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