Tradition is like a tree
Alexandre Tansman — Music for two pianos

In today’s world of classical music the study of Alexandre Tansman and his astounding oeuvre only reaches the stage of commendable commitment to an almost forgotten composer but is never further pursued than that. We still lack a representative number of recordings and the respective texts usually just review the most important stages of Tansman’s biography in the following way: as a young man he had a meteoric career in France and far beyond in the 1920s and 1930s; during the Third Reich he and his family fled Europe; he could finally gain a foothold in California, enormous success in Hollywood included; he returned to Paris after the Second World War but was not able to repeat the earlier success he had had before; eventually he was somehow relegated to the background and for the remaining forty years of his life composed music that did not really fit in with the modern aesthetics of the second half of the 20th century.

This was more or less all we knew about him when we came across the manuscript of Le Train de nuit a few years ago and started rehearsing. Immediately, we were enthusiastic about the witty rhythm of a moving train and the vast scenery which is conjured up in our mind’s eye, passes by, changes and then disappears. However, we were well aware of the fact that we were dealing with a complex composition and would need quite some time to achieve a perfect balance of interpretative accuracy and coherent suspense – in other words, it was an extraordinary piece of music we were dealing with.

As soon as our curiosity was piqued we familiarised ourselves with Tansman’s oeuvre for piano duos1 and gradually saw him, his life and his development in a different light. Though before the Second World War all the rage Tansman was afterwards not en vogue any more. From our point of view, however, this does not affect the quality of his compositions, in which the aesthetics of stylistic versatility and continual refinement of stylistic devices steadily progressed. The fact that Tansman was no revolutionary and let Messiaen, Boulez, Cage and Ligeti take his place in the avant-garde should definitely not be a criterion for assessing the importance of his music.

Regardless of the fact that we personally find them very appealing the works of this recording are so sophisticated and brilliant that they equal those by Ravel, though unlike Ravel Tansman seldom uses comments. A lot of the developments pertaining to agogics, dynamics and “energy levels” are not written down although they are essential for his music to develop to the full. He literally demands interpretation – a clearly individual perception the respective interpreter has to come up with. The fact that Tansman used a way of notation that has more in common with the classical period than with the sophisticated vocabulary of the 20th century is by no means coincidence but symbolises the essence of Tansman’s ideas about music: to deliberately use classical tradition as the basis for every work, though for each work in a different way.

Born in Poland into a Jewish family with an upbringing strongly influenced by a French attitude of mind Tansman had unlimited access to the wealth that European musical, philosophical and humanistic culture had to offer. All his life he held the belief that tradition is of vital importance for the arts: “Tradition is like a tree. Dry branches fall off but it is dangerous to uproot the tree. The roots have to stay.”2 Regarding his own oeuvre he therefore used composition techniques of various epochs, cultures and styles with virtually chameleon-like adaptability, always eager to try something new.
The more we immersed ourselves in his piano compositions the more obvious it became that Tansman’s style is - in all its manifestations - specifically defined by a seemingly effortless levity rather than by a self-contained musical language. At the same time his compositions do not give the impression of epigonism or arbitrariness for in his music superb craftsmanship, extraordinary imaginativeness and a distinct artistic concept form an integrated whole. On the other hand, Tansman’s impressive command of many different styles and techniques also means that it is impossible to identify a typical “Tansman sound”, a distinct individual trademark that runs through his musical oeuvre. You can even say that Tansman’s ingenuity was an obstacle to his fame. Our recording aims at presenting the essential components of his music – versatility and quality – and hope that our performance lives up to the high standard set by the following compositions for two pianos.

Le Train de nuit (The Night Train), written in 1951, is ballet music for Kurt Jooss’ Folkwang Tanztheater. Kurt Jooss, the “founding father of the German dance theatre”, knew and highly appreciated Tansman even before they co-operated in La Grande Ville. He also chose him as the composer for a new project about the dreams of two passengers during a train journey at night and Tansman came up with this large-scale composition. Due to its virtuoso form and the interpretative possibilities it offers this piece is definitely a real concertante work for piano, regardless of its performance as a ballet (the same is true for Ravel’s La Valse).

Le Train de nuit develops on two levels: reality is represented by a wide range of railroad noises, the dreams by a waltz and a tango. In the last third of the piece this spectrum becomes much denser: the themes are mixed, new ideas and energetic acceleration are added – until the dreamers suddenly wake up and realise that the train has just stopped.

This free rhapsodic form presents a marked contrast to the Sonata for two pianos with its strict form. Composed in 1940 this sonata in a way also reflects the horrors of the Second World War: Tansman and his family were Jews and lived as expatriates under miserable circumstances in Nice for one year, hiding from the Nazis and the Vichy regime and waiting for a chance to flee.

The form of a late classical four-movement structure (sonata form of the first movement / slow movement / scherzo / finale with fugue) provides the framework for the dramaturgic development in which each movement has its own, independent tone colours. The opening movement has an almost serial style; gloominess, uneasiness and inner torment are subject to a rigid system. This meticulously planned development exudes something harsh and unavoidable. The slow second movement, an expressionistic adagio, however, frees itself from these structural constraints by means of just a few tones but as to its alternation between darkness and light an unambiguous solution is not offered. In connection with the presto Tansman introduces a drastic piano duality that seems to anticipate György Ligeti’s Three pieces for two pianos, which were composed in 1976: the two pianos, rigorously keeping a semitone distance, are rushing past the listener in a kind of bitonal perpetuum mobile. It is only the final movement that brings this kinetic energy to a standstill and then turns into a fugue that is clearly modelled on its baroque prototype and which once again demonstrates the intransigent power of a rigid structure.

La Grande Ville, Tansman’s music about the “big city”, a ballet production of the German Tanztheater, was composed in 1935 and has quite a complex genesis. The marked contrast between the music and the choreography is an especially interesting feature. The action performed on stage is about a love that gradually dies whereas the accompanying music – completely impervious to what is going on - provides the “le jazz hot” feeling of the 1930s.

La Rue: On a street a young man dances with his girl-friend amidst the throngs of people and the young woman attracts the attention of a wealthy Casanova. Cité ouvrière: The young woman and the Casanova meet again in the working class district. When the man gives her a glittering dress as a present she is simply enraptured. His seduction is successful and the young man is forgotten. Dancing: In the Charleston-infused atmosphere of a night club the young woman is dancing with her seducer while the young man is looking for her in a street café, does not find her and seeks consolation in waltzing with another woman. Both scenes take place simultaneously at both locations (brilliantly devised by Tansman: piano I plays Charleston in four-four time, piano II plays a waltz in three-four time). The young woman, harassed by her seducer, manages to escape into the night and the young man stays behind in the café after the other woman left him as well – “une figure humaine seule et désolée dans l’inhumanité de la Grande Ville”.3

With the Fantaisie sur les valses de Johann Strauss we eventually enter the world of salon music. Tansman quotes a whole range of popular Strauss themes. He hardly alienates those themes but combines them with one another and joins them to a long series of waltzes in a kind of steady progression. This work from 1961 seems to be a bit anachronistic, however, its value lies in Tansman’s loving charm when dealing with the romantic originals and also in the particular importance this piece had for him. Much as he felt great nostalgia for waltzes Tansman broadens his compositional vocabulary with this piece: he introduces a new polychord which was to characterise a lot of his works in the years to follow – the (actually so-called) “Tansman chord” – a layering of C major, A flat major with an added seventh and the double fourth b-e-a that spans six octaves and can therefore be only performed by an orchestra or two pianos. In the pianissimo we perceive this chord as hesitantly floating whereas in the fortissimo it takes on a triumphal quality – Tansman here uses both variants of this chord.

Even though the most recent work of this recording is much more modelled on the past than the others, it nevertheless contains the most innovative element. To use Tansman’s powerful image: The firmly rooted tree of his music continued growing even in the seventh decade of his life. To learn that this metaphor does not only sum up his art but also his attitude towards life in general neatly completed our study of Tansman’s music. We are grateful to Mireille Tansman Zanuttini and Marianne Tansman Martinozzi for their cordial correspondence that offered a profound insight into the life and the ideas of their father.

At the end, we would like to quote Alexandre Tansman himself, this refined and great composer who draw on plentiful resources. On the occasion of his 70th birthday he said, when asked whether he felt old: “Artists of our generation have studied a lot of things without ever mentioning them specifically — painting, literature, philosophy … and even if old age is approaching such studies prove to be valuable experiences and we are able to look back with contentment. And to look ahead.”

Lucia Huang & Sebastian Euler

1Only then did we realise how many works for piano duo Tansman wrote. We do not know any other composer of the 20th century who contributed more to this genre.
2Tadeusz Kaczyński, “Conversation with Aleksander Tansman”, 1974
3A human silhouette, lonely and unhappy amid the inhumanity of the big city