Alexander Tansman was born in Łódź on 11 June 1897. His early compositions can be divided into two parallel currents, the first of which was firmly embedded in Polish national tradition and remained under a strong influence of Chopin. The second current was avant-garde in character and went well beyond the parochial tastes of contemporary Polish musical circles. As early as 1916 the young composer was writing atonal and polytonal music, while in the 1st String Quartet he made use of dodecaphonic themes – his achievement is all the greater if one takes into account the fact that at the time he did not have the slightest idea that somewhere in the world there lived a certain Arnold Schönberg. Even today, eighty years later, his cycle of Eight Japanese Songs, which was composed to texts written by Remigiusz Kwiatkowski, still sounds fresh and new. In the first composer’s competition held in Independent Poland, which ended in Warsaw on January 8th 1919, he was awarded the first three prizes.
In Poland, however, his compositions met with the same vitriolic criticism that had been directed against Szymanowski. As a result, Tansman decided to leave for France. In Paris he presented his compositions to Maurice Ravel and received his wholehearted approval. Thereafter, Tansman’s international career progressed at an all but sensational pace. Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud induced him to join their Group “Le Six”, but he prized his independence above all else. Soon after his name began to be mentioned in connection with the composers of the “L’Ecole de Paris:” Bohuslav Martinu,Tibor Harsanyi, Marcel Mihalovici and Aleksandr Cherepnin.
By the beginning of the twenties Tansman was, alongside Karol Szymanowski, the foremost representative of the “new school of composers” in Poland.
Tansman’s rise to fame was meteoric. In America his pieces were conducted by Sergey Kussevitzky, Tulio Serafin, Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Mengelberg, while in Europe by Pierre Monteux, Jasha Horenstein, Herman Abendroth, Walter Straram, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Emil Młynarski and Grzegorz Fitelberg. His chamber pieces were played by the most famous string quartets, while his solo compositions were performed by pianists such as Walter Gieseking, José Iturbi, Henri Gil-Marchex, Jan Smeterlin, Henryk Sztompka, Mieczysław Horszowski and Zbigniew Drzewiecki. They were sung by Maria Freund, Jane Bathori and Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, and also became the show pieces of violinists Bronisław Huberman, József Szigeti, Hélène Jourdan-Morhange and Irena Dubiska, and of cellists Pablo Casals, Gregory Piatigorsky, Maurice Maréchal, Enrico Mainardi and Kazimierz Wiłkomirski. Tansman was a close friend of Chaplin and Gershwin.
A monograph dedicated to Tansman, entitled Alexander Tansman. The Polish Composer, written by Irving Schwerke, the famous American critic, was published in 1931 in Paris and New York. Its hero was just 34 years old! The 1932-33 season, during which Tansman embarked on a round-the-world concert tour that started in Warsaw and took him across the United States, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, the Malay archipelago and Ceylon to Egypt, marked an important stage in his career. In Tokyo he was received by Emperor Hirohito, while in Bombay he was the private guest of Mahatma Gandhi. Everywhere he travelled, he was greeted as one of the greatest Polish artists of the time.
In 1939 Tansman went on five great concert tours of the United States, and soon became a well known composer in that country. He spent the war years in Hollywood, sharing the fate of many European émigrés such as Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók, Thomas Mann. His friendship with Stravinsky was to result in a biographical book – one of the most valuable and credible works on Stravinsky’s artistry.
In 1946 Tansman returned to Europe and once again settled in Paris. He became a classic in both meanings of the word. He was included amongst the most famous representatives of the neo-classical current in world music, alongside Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc and Casella. His outstanding contribution to world music was officially confirmed by many awards and distinctions: the Japanese Ji-ji Shimpo Medal, honorary membership of the Imperial Musical Academy in Tokyo, the Elizabeth Sprague- Coolidge Medal in Washington, the Musical Award of the French Academy, the Prix Hector Berlioz in Paris, a chair in the Royal Belgian Academy, which he inherited from Dmitry Shostakovich, the Commandery of the French Order of Arts and Sciences, and the honorary membership Medal of the Association of Polish Composers. In 1983 this list was supplemented by two Polish distinctions: the Gold Decoration of the Order of Merit and the Decoration of Merit for Polish Culture.
In 1986 the Academy of Music in Łódź granted him a honoris causa doctorate. In a letter to Polish readers (1983), the composer stated: “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”. Tansman’s last piece, composed shortly before his death, in 1985, was a miniature composition for viola and piano entitled... Alla polacca. The composer died in Paris on November 15th 1986.
Aleksander Tansman was one of the first Polish artists nominated for Oscar and the first composer from Poland and from Łódź who received a distinction from the American Film Academy.
In 1927-1928, at the time of the conception of the Film Academy Award, Tansman’s fame was skyrocketing. He was discovered by America during a couple of his extensive tours in the United States – the youngest composer ever invited to tour America.
In 1928 the performance of his 2nd Piano Concerto was attended by the audience of 18 000 at the Hollywood Bowl. Years later, the piece was acclaimed to be one of the masterpieces of world’s music. In the us it became to be known as the “musical biography of Chaplin.” Tansman and Chaplin met at the Coconut Grove Club. The actor asked Tansman whether he had ever dedicated any of his concertos to anyone. “No,” Alexander replied, “but I can dedicate the 2nd Piano Concerto to you.”
In his memoirs from America, Arnold Schönberg recalled Tansman as universally recognised to be one of the most eminent composers, alongside American composers such as Sessions, Gershwin and Copland, and foreign ones such as Sibelius and Stravinsky. Tansman was exalted by the luminaries of the American music world (e.g. Aaron Copland), who often valued his music above the one of older colleagues seeking success in the United States. In Boston Evening Transcript Nicolas Slonimsky, a relative of Antoni Słonimski, argued that Tansman “became a musical plenipotentiary of Poland in the Western World.” In 1931 an American music critic Irving Schwerke released Tansman’s biography entitled “Alexander Tansman. The Polish Composer”.
The following time he visited America (1941) he was rescuing himself and his family from the Holocaust. It was Charlie Chaplin who helped the Tansmans. The way Alexander was saving family valuables when fleeing France falls short of symbolic: as he could not get suitcases, he put them in... a coffin! It was immortalised by the New York Times reporters waiting for the ship in New York. “They started to take photographs at once, they could not imagine how you can travel with a coffin instead of a suitcase,” Tansman recalled.
The Tansmans’ house was situated in Beverly Hills. It was frequently attended by Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Dudley Nichols, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, Adolph Bolm, Lion Feuchtwanger and others. While in Holywood, Tansman set music to the films of Julien Duvivier, Fritz Lang, Gregory Ratoff, Dudley Nichols, and cooperated with the famous producer David O. Selznick. In 1945 he was nominated for Oscar for his score for “Paris Underground” directed by Gregory Ratoff. Bernard Herrmann regards “the works of Copland, Tansman and Toch as Hollywood’s greatest achievements in the domain of film music.”
She poet Antoni Słonimski regarded Julian Tuwim as “serene, with a sense of humour; constantly active in Polish poetry; the most modern and standing out of all of us.” Tuwim was universally recognised as the one who “revived poetry.” It seems that Łódź does not have a problem with commemorating its poet. Yet it does have a problem with commemorating Aleksander Tansman, not to mention Paul Kletzki. Those personages of the world of music both hailed from Łódź and gained international fame. They were counted among the most distinguished personalities of the 20th-century music. Yet not only Łódź, but also Poland, “lost Tansman out of sight” for a long time. Now, for over 15 years, the International Festival and Competition of Musical Personalities, named after Aleksander Tansman, has been trying to restore the composer’s memory, works and ideas. Kletzki, however, remains forgotten, despite the fact that he co-created, together with Tansman, the Łódź Symphonic Orchestra, later to be known as the Łódź Philharmonic.
Tuwim (1894-1953), Tansman (1897-1986) and Kletzki (1900-1973). Growing up together as friends, inspiring one another, passing a lot of time in one another’s company. Their parents used to call them “the Three Musketeers.” Who realises it now, who remembers their story?
How did it all start?
Mosze Tansman, Aleksander’s father, excelled not only in business. He was an art connaisseur and a charity man. As Janusz Cegiełła remarks, Mosze’s heart and pocket were always open to those in need, whom he supported without ostentation. Otherwise, he was importing luxury goods and travelling a lot. He would journey to Venice as often as to distant Caucasus. At the Tansmans’, lamps and Venetian cristal competed with Eastern carpets, cutlery and glassware from Caucasian goldsmiths. Mosze’s enterprise flourished, aided by Izydor Tuwim, Julian’s father, working at the Azov-Don Commercial Bank and by the Kletzki brothers running an exchange office at Piotrkowska Street.
The Tansmans, the Tuwims and the Kletzki used to pay visits at each other’s houses, organising on those occasions chamber concerts to which they invited musicians on tour in Łódź. It was during one of such visits that our protagonists, Julian, Aleksander and Paul, made an acquaintance. Tansman and Tuwim continued to meet more and more frequently. When Aleksander’s parents moved to 121 Piotrkowska St. at the turn of 1914 and 1915, they almost became neighbours with the Tuwims, who lived at 42 Przejazd (now Tuwima) Street.
Together at the threshold of career
The first – historical – Łódź Symphonic Orchestra, later the renowned Łódź Philharmonic, included Aleksander Tansman and Paul Kletzki as instrumentalists. Kletzki performed as a violinist, Tansman as a pianist, when needed playing also the part of the harp which the orchestra could not afford at that time. They set up their own quartet meeting at Piotrkowska St., where Tuwim used to come over and share his poetic juvenilia with his friends. They inspired Tansman to compose one of his first pieces. Songs to the Lyrics by Julian Tuwim were premiered in March 1915 at the Scala Theatre at 18 Nowocegielniana (now Więckowskiego) St. The review was published in Nowy Kurier Łódzki but the Songs got lost, just as the memory of their friendship for a long time.
Shortly after that concert, in autumn 1915, our protagonists decided to leave for Warsaw to study. Warsaw University was rescucitated after the capital was taken over by Germans in August 1915. Tansman, Tuwim and Kletzki wanted to expand their knowledge. Aleksander and Julian enrolled at the Law School, while Paul, the youngest of the three, continued his musical education and, towards the end of the war, took up philosophy. They lived together in Warsaw, renting a room at Chmielna St., and frequented the Warsaw Philharmonic. However, their paths would soon split, for ever.
Tansman was the first to emigrate, heading for Paris. He was followed by Kletzki, who left for Berlin. Tuwim stayed in Poland immersed in the upheaval of the Polish- Russian war; he was working at the Press Office of the Commander-in-Chief, Józef Piłsudski.
In 1919 Aleksander Tansman won the first composer competition in independent Poland, organised under the patronage of Ignacy Jan Paderewski. At the award ceremony at the Polonia Hotel in Warsaw he was wearing the uniform of the Polish Army. This is an important fact (mentioned by Tansman in his so far unpublished memoirs), taking into account the reaction of some people to the verdict of the jury: when the envelope with the alias was opened up and the name of the winner revealed, he had to face criticism tainted with anti-Semitism. After that Tansman set off on his conquest of Europe, supported by Maurice Ravel.
Kletzki in the 1920s gained just as renowned and famous protector: Wilhelm Fürtwangler. Despite Fürtwangler’s legendary hostility to competition he did accept Kletzki, while he refused e.g. Herbert von Karajan. Until 1933 Kletzki’s European fame as a conductor was soaring. He also made his name as a composer. After the Nazi took over in Germany, he emigrated to Italy, and then, when they introduced racist laws, to Switzerland.
After the Second World War, Tansman and Kletzki enjoyed high recognition in the world of music among the best composers and conductors respectively. Their international achievements were often commented on by Jerzy Waldorff, Marian Fuks or Tadeusz Kaczyński, yet it was beyond the borders of their own country dominated by the Soviets that they found their fame. When Tansman visited Antoni Słonimski in 1946 in London, they were also talking about Tuwim, whom Aleksander would never see again. The poet returned to Poland the same year, and could never listen to Tansman’s works as they were banned by the communists. He died in 1953, three years before the ban was lifted. It was only in 1967 that Tansman paid the first visit to Poland after he had left in his early youth.
Settled in the West, Kletzki and Tansman met a couple of times. Paul conducted all over the world, also Aleksander’s music. Yet he stopped to compose. His whole family lost their lives in the Holocaust. “My work as a composer died together with those close to my heart,” he said. Tansman, Kletzki and Tuwim could no longer follow the same path as they had ventured on when leaving Łódź for Warsaw. One should not forget about their common beginnings though, about the friendship which bound them during their prolific youth in Łódź. Łódź was the place of departure for “the three musketeers” who wanted to conquer the world – and who succeeded.