Polish Music Journal
Vol. 1, No. 1. Summer 1998. ISSN 1521 - 6039


Alexandre Tansman: Diary of a 20th-Century Composer

Compiled, Translated and Introduced by
Jill Timmons and Sylvain Frémaux


Early Childhood and Youth in Poland (1897-1919)
Debut in Paris (1919-1921)
Rise to Fame (1921-1941)
Years of Exile in Los Angeles (1941-1946)
Return to France: Creative Maturity (1946-1986)
Recollections: Illustrious Contemporaries



1. Early Childhood and Youth in Poland (1897-1919)

I am originally from Poland. I first attended school in the town of my birth, Lódz. Later I registered as a student of law and philosophy at the University of Warsaw. Simultaneously, since the time of my most tender youth, I studied music. I had the good fortune to have had parents who were extremely cultured and very musical. They were not professional musicians but there was a lot of music-making in our home. We also invited a number of foreign artists to our house. Thus, I began to play the piano at a very young age—four or five. I was a rather good pianist. I always played at the concerts of the lycée [high school]. I began composing around the age of eight. It was a type of subconscious vocation. I really wasn't thinking about becoming a composer but I was always strongly encouraged by my family. My first compositions were short pieces written in the style of Chopin and Grieg. By the age of sixteen, I was already composing seriously.

I believe, from a purely aesthetic point of view, that the very goal of music has not changed for me since I was eight. I have always considered the act of musical creation as a kind of escape, a social 'superstructure' that must remain outside one's daily routine. From the aesthetic angle this has not changed for me since childhood.

My parents were very artistic. They were essentially affluent bourgeois but they adored all that was artistic: they owned paintings and a magnificent family library in five languages. Often we traveled abroad to Italy, Germany and so on. During my childhood I also knew Artur Rubinstein, who is also from Lódz. This town has produced many great musicians.

My first exposure to music was a bit of a shock and actually quite funny. It was the first time that I attended a public concert. On the concert posters the announcement read, 'The King of Violinists.' As a six-year old child I imagined that the soloist would appear on stage with royal crown and mantle. And of course, he was only a gentleman in tails! I was so impressed that I decided to devote my life to music. The gentleman in tails was Eugene Ysaye. Much later when I told him this story I think he was amused and touched.

Interestingly enough, in those days, I really knew very little about music and not just modern music. In the provincial town of Lódz there was not even an orchestra. As a pianist I did have a good technical foundation, but I had not even heard the great classical composers. I was beginning to know some Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a little Richard Strauss. Of Debussy, I knew practically nothing—only the Arabesques [1888]. Of Ravel, just the name and his Pavane.[2] But I had never heard the names Stravinsky, Bartók or Schoenberg. In those times, Poland was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

I was, however, writing virtually in the same style that I later discovered in Paris and abroad. Therefore, it was a kind of intuition; there was something in the air because it was not the same kind of music that people wrote in Poland at that time. Rather, it was the kind of music that was already in vogue in Western Europe. At that time, I did not even know what polytonality or atonality meant. Nevertheless, I was composing spontaneously albeit unconsciously. I was using compositional techniques that were completely unknown at that time in Poland as well as in Russia and Eastern Europe. My first childhood love musically speaking was Chopin and of course Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. That was all I knew.

My father died very young, at age 37, following an appendectomy. There was no penicillin at that time. Our family life, however, continued as before, at least until World War I. During my childhood we had a German governess, a French governess and I also studied English. Naturally, I spoke Polish and Russian, so I already knew five languages. Then my mother insisted that I study law and philosophy. This was not for professional training but for my general education. Anyway, my mother always encouraged my musical studies. I find it is essential that a musician also be highly cultivated. During the course of my long life I have witnessed that most musicians—at least all the great ones—were highly educated individuals. Whether it was Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, or Ravel, these men were all extremely cultivated and had a broad vision.

In 1915, I left Lódz to study in Warsaw.[3] I was 18 years old. My fellow students liked to tease me, but my college life went very well without difficulties, in spite of the political climate. I was in a circle of friends who liked to play pranks. It was a little like the Bohemian life of bygone days. I even admit that I actually fought in a duel. Well, it was not very serious. At that time, in some guilds it was still mandatory to duel for the slightest offense but our fight did not go very far. In my case I had a little quarrel—over a woman. Ultimately, no one was killed, although I slightly wounded my opponent's arm. We embraced and no longer spoke of it. Those were the customs.

When Poland became independent in 1918-19, the first Polish competition for composers was organized under the aegis of Ignace Paderewski. Entries were not submitted personally, so I was awarded first, second and third prizes because I entered three times under different names.[4] Encouraged by this success, I decided to go to Paris.

Thus, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Poland. In regard to the importance of Slavic influence in my music, I can readily say that I followed the same path as Bartók or Manuel de Falla: folklore imaginé. I did not use popular themes per se. I used, however, their general melodic contour. Polish folklore is abundantly rich. I think that, along with Spanish folklore, it is the richest in possibilities. I was familiar with Polish folklore very early. My nanny used to sing peasant songs that were anonymous. They were not contemporary urban songs but songs that came from 'nowhere.' This folklore remained strongly present in my musical sensitivity but only as folklore imaginé. 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. But Polish character is not solely expressed through folklore. There is something intangible in my music that reveals an aspect of my Polish origin.

Anyway, I made use of certain scales and particular harmonic and melodic gestures. For example, I wrote several volumes of mazurkas for solo piano and I even used Polish dance forms—such as the mazurka and polonaise—in several of my symphonic works. Polish folk music is rather modal but it is especially interesting because it is based on two major triads separated by a major second. For instance: Do-Mi-Sol, Ré-Fa#-La. Incidentally, in this regard Polish and Scandinavian folk music are distant relatives. What is rather intriguing is not just the chord itself but its use melodically. The melodic line of Polish folk music takes shape in this manner. In sixteenth century Poland, by the way, there existed a school of composition referred to as the Golden Century. It included composers such as Gomółka and Szamotulski [Wacław of Szamotuły], who had considerable influence on a number of great foreign masters. This music had a certain style, a definite character, especially sacred music. Even Bach used the term alla polacca.

Then, there was a sudden shift in Poland's situation. During the Russian Revolution my family lost everything; our position, our fortune. In order for us to survive, my mother had to sell off all the family jewelry, piece by piece. It was then that my family separated. After the beginning of World War I, my sister lived in Berlin and studied piano with Artur Schnabel. For the next three years we did not know of her whereabouts but she finally reappeared at my uncle's home in Moscow, and that is when we heard about her once again. Meanwhile, my mother survived. Later on, as my circumstances improved, I brought them both to Paris to live with me; first my sister, then my mother. Towards the end of the War and after Poland was declared independent, I volunteered for the army. When the War was finally over I was demobilized and subsequently chose to immigrate to France [1919].

I had always been attracted to French culture. I had a governess who instilled in us a love of France. My family was very Francophile; we often spoke French at home and we had a vast French library. Ordinarily, Eastern European musicians went to Germany to pursue their careers. As for me, I chose Paris and have never regretted it. Nevertheless, I have returned to Poland a number of times.

I must say that Paris was not foreign to me. Thanks to my reading and my French governess I already knew Paris. For example, I knew the layout of the city and was familiar with all the museums. Of course I was stunned to actually see Paris but I did not feel like a foreigner. I was well prepared for many years for what I was about to see. What struck me first were the monuments of Paris, especially the Sainte-Chapelle. I knew that it existed, but when I finally saw it I was amazed. While I knew about the Place de la Concorde through photographs, I had never actually seen such a vast and beautiful square. Besides, everyone spoke French! How could I have known, at 22 years of age, arriving in Paris for the first time, that I was going make this city my home and have all my career there? Indeed, it happened. Even though I made countless tours throughout the world, I always considered Paris my home port; the city where I chose to end my days.

2. Debut in Paris (1919-1921)

I did not even know how I was going to live once I arrived in Paris. I first had to attend to my livelihood. I lived in a hotel and I did not know how I was going to survive from one week to the next. Fortunately I knew a very wealthy Pole who happened to be passing through Paris at that time. For the first three weeks we visited every night club and then he departed. I was left hanging not knowing what to do. Finally, through an ad, I managed to be hired as a packing worker in the Villette district. It was great fun and I made many friends. It is not a time that I regret. When one is young everything goes well. After that, I met someone who thought, upon realizing that I spoke five or six languages, that I could do something else professionally. They found for me a position as a manager of foreign correspondence for the Comptoir National d'Escompte. [5] Concurrently, I continued to compose at home, hoping that something would come out of it. All my life has been a succession of miracles.

One of my fellow countrymen, a Polish architect, who had served as a volunteer in the French army during World War I, knew Georges Mouvot, the chief decorator of the Paris Opera. My friend invited Mouvot and me for dinner and said to him, 'Here is a young Pole who claims to be a composer. I know nothing about it. What do you think?' Mouvot replied, 'I know Ravel very well and I am going to invite them for dinner.' Well, for me, this was an incredible thing, to meet Ravel. Indeed, he invited us for dinner. This was decisive for my life. I brought everything I had written. Ravel seemed very enthusiastic and he took me under his wing in a truly paternal way. He is the one who found a publisher for me, artists to perform my works, and gave me a letter of introduction to Vladimir Golschmann. In Paris at that time, Golschmann was presenting numerous programs of contemporary music. He immediately welcomed me with great enthusiasm and he continued to promote my music until his death.

These were times that, from my perspective, could no longer be repeated. From an artistic point of view, this was a marvelous time. There was a kind of emulation that took place through artistic encounters and gatherings. The Parisian salons have remained historic in my memory. We would get together, make music, and meet people from around the world. This was an atmosphere devoid of any cliques. Very quickly, I formed ties with all the young composers of the time.

Ravel had few intimate friends. He had the reputation of being a rather withdrawn and discreet man. With his friends, however, he was very outgoing and ebullient. Besides our personal encounters, when I would go to Montfort-l Amaury to show him my work, I also met him three times a week at the homes of friends to whom he had introduced me: every Monday at Roland-Manuel's; Sundays at the home of the Godebskis' , Ravel's friends; at Madame Clémenceau's home or at Madame Dubost's.

Paule Clémenceau would always host on Sunday afternoons. It was an international salon. Attending were Einstein—when he came to Paris—Stefan Zweig, Ravel, Roussel, Florent Schmitt and Les Six. It was truly an international gathering. We would form small groups. I formed a close friendship with Stefan Zweig because I also spoke German and it served me well. Because Zweig was Richard Strauss' librettist, he was able to give me a letter of introduction to him. The artistic atmosphere was quite different from that of today. There was no division between generations. I was very close friends with people much older than me, such as Ravel, Roussel, Schmitt, later Stravinsky, as well as those of my generation, such as Les Six, and even younger composers. It was a kind of brotherhood if you will. We would show each other our works. Thanks to Ravel, after only six months in Paris, I began to take part in the international musical scene. Paris was the center of the artistic world at that time. Among French composers I met Milhaud, Honegger, Poulenc, Roland-Manuel, Ibert, and the older generation, Ravel, Roussel and Schmitt. The foreign composers I met were Manuel de Falla, Malipiero, Casella and Prokofiev. Everyone was in Paris. On Sunday evenings, we would go to Ravel's close friends, the Godebskis, a family originally from Poland. One would also meet André Gide, Ricardo Vińes and of course, Ravel. Also, there were the famous Monday evenings at the home of Roland-Manuel. In a smoke-filled salon you could meet just about the entire musical world. There reigned an atmosphere—a sort of social romanticism—which is unimaginable today. Now it seems we have become more functional, concrete and practical.

In the salons there were indeed polemics but they were friendly—never unpleasant things. We discussed current events and aesthetics and if you happened to disagree, you would still respect the opinions of others. It was very friendly and affectionate. I believe that everyone composed according to their personality. Regarding influences nowadays, composers must begin from scratch and avoid all influences. Ravel, on the other hand, always said that, 'a composer who resists influence should change profession.' Everyone is exposed to influences, what matters is whether one seeks them or simply absorbs them. It is essential to digest them and to find one's own path. Indeed, there is always something to learn, even from a younger composer. We always inherit the past. The challenge is to harvest and enrich that legacy.

Among those who influenced me during that period there was certainly Ravel and possibly Stravinsky—although he claimed to like my music precisely because I was not writing like another Stravinsky. People always bring up rhythm when they identify a Stravinsky influence. I believe, however, that my rhythmic idea comes from folk music rather than from Stravinsky. I cannot say that I was not influenced by anyone. Besides, no artist can claim that. Take Michelangelo in the Renaissance, for example. I believe he copied the works of Ghirlandaio in order to develop his own artistic personality.

Naturally, the salon gatherings, which lasted until World War II, had an influence on me. I was enriched by them. I had come to France knowing nothing about contemporary music. As I said before, I knew nothing of Debussy's music. I had never heard Pelléas,[6] nor any of Debussy's symphonic works. Of Ravel, I only knew the Pavane. I cannot say that I was shocked by that music. I was simply enriched. Rather than being foreign to me, it did confirm my own intuition. I found myself in the 'groove.'

At that time, I was mostly inspired by abstract concepts and aesthetic models. I wrote very little programmatic music. Even in my operas, I always sought to create an unfolding of the music that would parallel the dramatic action rather than creating an illustrative link."

3. Rise to Fame (1921-1941)

My music was first performed in the concerts of the Revue musicale. These were extremely important concerts because they were truly representative of the avant-garde of the time. The celebrated singer Marya Freund premiered my Mélodies japonaises—written in Poland—with a chamber orchestra under the direction of André Caplet, a very great musician.

In Paris, I began composing mostly symphonic works. They were immediately performed thanks to Ravel, at the Concerts Golschmann—the avant-garde concerts of the time—the Concerts Koussevitsky, and the Concerts Straram. These works were also performed in other avant-garde concert series of the time, such as the Société Musicale Indépendante in Paris and the Festival of Venice. Actually we did not have as many festivals as young people have today. But gradually my works became part of the repertoire of the great orchestras in France, as well as abroad. Consequently, I began to travel extensively.

Among the pieces that I composed at that time, there was a work entitled Légende symphonique [1923], which is not worth much as a composition, but which exhibited a certain originality. It was first performed at the Concerts Koussevitsky. My Intermezzo sinfonico [1920] was my first composition publicly performed in Paris under Golschmann. Golschmann did so much for me. His orchestral concerts also included contemporary music. He premiered works by Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger, Bartók and myself. After that, Koussevitsky, one of the greatest conductors of the time, took interest in my music and performed several of my works in Paris. He first performed my Scherzo sinfonico [1923] then my Intermezzo sinfonico. Later, he commissioned my First Piano Concerto [1925] which I performed with him at the Paris Opera [1926]. For this performance I must say that I had an absolutely exceptional audience. In addition to the general public, some of the artists who attended were: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Milhaud, Malipiero and Casella. All of them were in the concert hall that evening. I was terribly nervous, especially since it was at the Paris Opera. It went very well, however, so well that Koussevitsky immediately commissioned a Second Piano Concerto [1927] and hired me for a tour of the United States.

Between 1919 and 1930 my body of work already included some rather important compositions: two symphonies and my two piano concerti which I performed in Paris and later in America. In 1927, during my American tour, my music was performed by several very famous conductors: first Koussevitsky, who performed many of my symphonic works; also Stokowski, Mengelberg, Ormandy, Damrosch, Stock—all the great conductors of the time. My music was also performed everywhere throughout Europe: in Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

I never considered myself part of the avant-garde. I think the name itself is a bit objectionable. Originally it was a military expression that designated those destined to die—those on the front line. But I was thrown into the avant-garde under the pretext that my music, harmonically and melodically, was thought to be modern—a term that I dislike.

I was the youngest composer ever invited to the United States. I performed with the Boston Symphony under Koussevitsky and I toured with the orchestra. What was interesting at this time was the way in which I toured. The French pianist Robert Schmitz had organized local chapters in mid-sized cities for an organization called Pro Musica. If I performed in two major cities I also had performances in connecting smaller towns. America is a big country, so if I had a concert in New York City and another in San Francisco, I also had chamber music concerts in various cities like Denver or Minneapolis. During those years I also toured extensively in Germany.

It was also during that time that I was married. I had met Colette Cras, my future wife, in a competition jury. She was a magnificent pianist. She had also been raised in a musical environment since her father, an admiral in the French navy, was also a composer and had been a student of Duparc. We were married in 1937. During this time in my life, I was the happiest. We had two children and two grandchildren. Colette was a very beautiful woman and quite remarkable from all points of view. She was also my best critic and the only one to whom I listened. When she said, "This doesn't work," she was always right. She was Stravinsky's favorite pianist. I even have a copy of his Capriccio that he dedicated to her with the words: "To the pianist that I prefer to play my Capriccio."

Among my works from the twenties, I would select the Quatre Danses polonaises [1931], premiered by Toscanini in New York City, as rather representative of this period (of course today, I would write them quite differently); my Second Symphony [1926], premiered by Koussevitsky at the Paris Opera; my two piano concerti which I performed in Paris and America (I really like my Second Piano Concerto, which I recently heard premiered in Poland 50 years after its first performance [1977]); and my Triptyque, dating from 1929 and still frequently performed (it was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a great patron of new music). Additionally, I wrote two movements for orchestra, a number of piano works and several string quartets.

From 1932 to 1933 I made a great voyage around the world. It greatly enriched me and it was extremely fruitful. I had the privilege of being one of the first European composers to be invited to the Far East. Since I was single at the time, I asked my agent to space my concert dates. I was gone nearly a year and a half. I visited Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Ceylon, Java and Bali. All of this was very rewarding. I met Gandhi who invited me to his home. That was truly a gift from heaven because he was a saint. I was both personally and musically enriched by discovering the music of India. Now, of course, this music is very fashionable. Then, however, this means of expression was new to me. I am not Indian nor Javanese, however. I follow the tradition of European music, which is in my opinion extremely rich as well.

Throughout the 1930s, I continued to compose and wrote several symphonies, symphonic works such as Deux Moments symphoniques[1932], a number of orchestral works, the Viola Concerto[1937], the Violin Concerto [1937], the Concertino [1931] for piano—written for José Iturbi—and then La Nuit kurde [1927], after the book by Jean-Richard Bloch. This was my first opera and required considerable research. Of course the writing was rather awkward in places and even the orchestration was much too heavy. A suite was extracted, however, which has been frequently performed. As an opera, I do not disown it but I would have to rewrite it. Another important work is my Symphonie concertante [1931] for piano quartet and orchestra, which I wrote for Queen Élisabeth of Belgium.

4. Years of Exile in Los Angeles (1941-1946)

The most painful moments of my life, actually were the fall of France in 1940 and more personally the premature death of my wife in Paris in 1953. For several years prior to 1940, I had already been on the Nazis' black list of artists. This list was established by Goebbels and included such people as Darius Milhaud, Artur Rubinstein, Einstein, and Henri Bergson. The only one who [initally] was not on the list was Bartók, but he asked to be added to the list and forbade that his music be performed in Germany under the Nazis.

My family and I left Paris in June of 1940, on the eve of the Paris occupation. Because my wife could not believe that the Germans would occupy Paris, we waited until the last minute and then had to flee. We ended up in Toulouse. From there we traveled to Nice where we waited for a visa to enter the United States. In Nice we had no means of support and were completely cut off from Paris. From time to time my publisher, Eschig, managed to send me some money indirectly. As it turned out, we remained in Nice for one year. Ultimately, I wrote to my old friend Charlie Chaplin asking him to help us leave Nice because our situation was becoming progressively more dangerous.

During the year in Nice, I composed extensively. In my little room I composed the Rapsodie polonaise [1939], material for my Fifth Symphony [1942] and a number of piano works. In spite of things, I continued to work. My wife and I with our two children lived in a one-room apartment. Fortunately I found unexpected support from Henri Delrieu, who owned a music store in Nice. One time I went to his store to ask if I could rent a piano studio for half an hour a week. His employees asked for my name and when I told them, they said they would send an upright piano to my home. When I said that I did not have the means to pay for a piano, they said that it did not matter. A few days later they asked about my means of support. I replied that I taught a few lessons and was trying to make ends meet. Then they inquired as to how I was working with my publisher. I told them that I was to receive monthly payments and they replied, 'We'll make those payments to you directly.' I was astonished. I hesitated: 'The Germans are victorious everywhere and I do not know if I can ever repay you.' Delrieu replied, 'We will take the risk.' They paid me every month until we left Nice. Naturally we reimbursed them after the war.

Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin had founded a committee to help us escape. There were considerable difficulties surrounding the necessary visas for Spain and Portugal. When one visa would be issued the next one would expire. I must say that Cortot, in spite of his collaboration, immediately provided me with an exit visa since he was part of the Vichy government. Finally we arrived in New York City aboard the last ship to cross the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor. We were provided with first class tickets. Because of the black market, however, that same ticket was sold several times. We ended up traveling in third class amidst terrible conditions. I had been unable to find proper luggage in Nice so I had purchased a coffin to transport our few personal effects. The coffin was some surprise to the reporters waiting in New York. They immediately took pictures because they could not imagine that one could travel with a coffin as luggage.

Of course I knew the United States quite well because I had very often toured there. Arriving as a refugee, however, was not the same as a guest artist. At first I had some difficulties but I was, nonetheless, very fortunate to find many friends in the United States. When I first arrived with my wife and two small children, who were not even walking, I had no money. Fortunately the friends who brought us to New York provided us with a suite in one of the larger hotels, as was the custom for guest artists. I still did not know where to begin—I had nothing. As luck would have it, however, the celebrated patron of the arts, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, saw my picture with my wife and children in the New York Times. She had commissioned many works from such modern composers as: Ravel, Bartók, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. I had also written several works for her as well. With much discretion she commissioned from me a piano sonata, which I was to premiere in person at the awards ceremony for the Coolidge Medal, one of the highest musical distinctions in America. This award gave us the opportunity to begin a new life in America. Next we left for Hollywood, California where I reconnected with many friends. Gradually, I re-established my professional position in the United States. I resumed touring and began to guest conduct.

We lived in Hollywood for almost five years—from 1941 to 1946. In those days, Hollywood was a kind of contemporary Weimar. All the European elite were in Hollywood or somewhere on the California Coast. As a result, I was surrounded by a most inspiring cadre of colleagues. We lived in a kind of European ghetto. It was there that I became intimate friends with Stravinsky, whom I already knew quite well. We even saw each other twice a day sometimes. We were truly inseparable. There was also Schoenberg, whom I already knew quite well, and the Milhauds, who had always been our friends. In Hollywood, however, we would often pay two-week visits to one another. My wife, our children and I would spend the holidays at the Milhauds'. Later, they would visit us for two weeks. When the Milhauds visited, we always invited a bunch of friends—the Stravinskys, Alma Mahler and her husband, and Thomas Mann. If it had not been for the War and our forced exile, life in Hollywood could have been culturally rewarding and enriching.

Every Sunday we organized chamber music at our home with the Budapest String Quartet, the Paganini String Quartet, some piano trios, and always with the Stravinskys. Movie stars such as Charles Laughton or Edward G. Robinson would attend as well. Sometimes Laughton would even read aloud from the Bible or from Shakespeare. The conductor, George Szell, who lived in Hollywood at that time, also joined us. We would also gather at the home of Thomas Mann or Emil Ludwig. It was a very entertaining group.

While in America, I composed extensively. I wrote some very important works: three symphonies [the Fifth, the Sixth and the Seventh], two string quartets and a serenade for orchestra. I composed a lot—the Six Études [1940-1942] for orchestra, which are frequently performed, and the Konzertstück [1943] for the left hand, for Wittgenstein. I also wrote several film scores that enabled me to live and work during our exile. The film studio atmosphere was not terribly artistic. Generally, producers were rather uncultured people. There were a number of conventions used in film music. In a love scene, for example, they required divided strings in the high register. On the other hand, I chose to use French horns for such a scene—it was a big issue to have that accepted.

Here is another anecdote. I was once conducting the recording of a film score. At one particular point I asked the clarinetist to play the passage an octave lower. The producer objected, however, by exclaiming: 'But I paid for the whole octave!' This shows the level of musical knowledge present in that milieu. We did not have any connections with these people outside the film studios.

Life in Hollywood was very artificial. It was not much fun for us. The entire city of Los Angeles was awaiting the latest film from MGM. Fortunately for us, however, there were those small gatherings of Europeans who provided an artistic and cultured environment. There, we were able to be ourselves.

We returned to France in 1946. We had always planned to return to France provided the War ended favorably. Our preference was to return before 1946, but my wife became ill and we had to delay our return trip by one year.

On D-Day something rather funny happened, if I may say so. We were dining at the Stravinskys and on our way home we heard over the radio a live broadcast from the Normandy landing. Upon returning home, I telephoned Stravinsky with the news. He replied, 'Get dressed again, come over and let's celebrate with champagne.' We returned to the Stravinskys' and spent the entire night toasting to the pending liberation of Paris."

5. Return to France: Creative Maturity (1946-1986)

Since my return to France in 1946, I have known many happy moments but some very painful ones as well. My wife, as well as many of my friends, passed away. We lost such friends as Honegger, Poulenc and Milhaud, to mention a few. Most recently we lost Salvador de Madariaga, a close friend, and Joseph Kessel. Well, such is life. At the same time I made many new friends. Vladimir Jankélévitch was a very close friend, and like a brother to me. I admire him enormously.

When I returned home to France in April of 1946, I was invited to festivals in Belgium, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and England. In France it took a bit longer to receive invitations but ultimately they came. Since my return to France I have composed a great deal. Among the essential works from this period are three operas. The first, which is frequently performed, is Le Serment [1953] to a libretto by Dominique Vincent after Balzac. The second opera is a very important work entitled Sabbataď Zévi or The False Messiah [1958]. The third is L'Usignolo di Boboli [1963] to a libretto by Mario Labroca, which was premiered in Nice and has been performed by the French Radio Orchestra. So much for operas. I wrote a ballet, Résurrection [1962], for the Opéra de Nice, and three important works for chorus and orchestra: Isaďe le Prophčte [1950] and Prologue et Cantate [1957] for the French Radio Choir and Psaumes 118, 119, 120 [1961] for tenor, chorus and orchestra. I also composed Sinfonia piccola [1952] and the Suite baroque.[1958]. Queen Élisabeth of Belgium commissioned the Suite baroque. I wrote many stage works as well.

I still travel extensively—I must say that I have spent a great deal of my life in airplanes and sleeping cars! My profession does not know retirement. I feel sorry for people who must retire. For me, it would be like suicide. I am frequently invited to attend performances of my works in foreign countries. Right now, for instance, I do not have a break. I was just in Warsaw where they performed a whole series of concerts of my works. I also went to London as well. Now, after the summer holidays, I will be on my way to Spain, then Jerusalem, Amsterdam and Germany. Meanwhile, I still have a great deal of work to do and several compositions to complete. With all these projects I do not have time to get old.

My latest work [Sinfonietta no. 2, 1978] was commissioned by the Polish government and was just premiered in Poland. I also have a commission from the French government, Les dix Commandements [1979], the proofs of which I am correcting at this time. Among other projects there is a commission from the Contemporary Music Society in Jerusalem, and another one from the French Radio for oboe and chamber orchestra which will be premiered on my birthday [June 12, 1980]."

Recollections: Illustrious Contemporaries

The name, École de Paris, is just an expression but has no aesthetic meaning. Obviously those of us who were members of École de Paris shared the same preoccupations—the preoccupations of our generation. We had certain things in common, such as our friendships and our attraction to France. Each of us followed his own path, however, and came from a different country of origin. I brought with me my love of Polish folklore. Mihailovici used sources from his native Romania. Martinu never completely abandoned the Czech folklore. Harsanyi had the Hungarian perspective and Tcherepnin, the Russian. What united us, however, was that we were all from the same generation and we were exploring the same compositional techniques—a sign of the time. We would share our scores with one another with frank and open discussions but we had no group motto.

Tibor Harsanyi was an extremely proud and generous man but very shy. He was a very great musician and it is regrettable that his music has been forgotten and has fallen from fashion at this time, particularly in France. In my opinion it is very unfair. He was more of a westerner than Bartók or Kódaly. He was trained in Paris in the circle of Roussel and Ravel, but there remained certain rhythms and thematic gestures that reflect his Hungarian roots. Among his most beautiful works is Le petit tailleur [1939], which is quite remarkable. Also there is his viola sonata. All that I knew by Harsanyi was always first class. I believe that we had considerable esteem for one another. I doubt that we ever had any aesthetic discussions. Those of us in the so-called École de Paris shared essentially the same views. I think we were in agreement. Each followed his own path but there are a number of paths to the truth.

Bohuslav Martinu was, and has remained profoundly Czech, even through his last works. In his music there is always a popular and rustic side that he never abandoned. He was a true heir to the great Czech composers such as Dvorák and Smetana. In his works you can find very bold gestures juxtaposed with very simple and tonal ones. I believe he is the perfect example of the notion that 'anything goes, nothing is forbidden.' In my opinion, his loyalty was more Czech than Parisian. The foundation was Czech but naturally he was strongly influenced by the French school. He studied with Roussel. He acquired a French sense of proportion and taste which shaped him. Nonetheless, he was profoundly grounded in the Czech and Slavic traditions. From the spiritual and intellectual point of view, I knew him much less. Although we were very good friends, we kept our discussions to purely professional matters. He was a very cultured and refined man as shown in his opera, Juliette ou La Clé des Songes [1937]. The way he approached such a delicate and fragile subject proves that he was a man of considerable sensitivity. While I was in America during World War II, I saw him often. In Martinu, there was a great nostalgia for his homeland and this was evident in his person as well as his music.

I met Maurice Ravel quite by accident and only because we had a friend in common. That was Georges Mouvot who was then the principle designer for the Opera. At that time I was becoming acquainted with Ravel's music and could not imagine actually meeting him. Mouvot told me: 'But no, he is a good friend of mine. Come for dinner, we will invite you both.' I was terrified for a week as the dinner approached. I arrived for dinner, bringing everything I had written. I then played my works at the piano for him. From that moment until his death, Ravel was like a father for me.

Ravel had the reputation of being a rather timid, shy and introverted man, even distant. This was not at all true. I knew him in Paris and he was very warm towards me. As it turned out, together we toured the United States for the first time. Since he did not speak a word of English we were together the entire time, in the same hotels, the same receptions. That is when I observed the sentimental Ravel. It was at the end of 1927. In Carnegie Hall I shared the box seats with him when Koussevitsky conducted the first all-Ravel concert. At the end of the concert, when Ravel saw 3,000 people giving him a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall, he said: 'Well, that would not happen to me in Paris!' He had tears in his eyes. The shy and distant Ravel was very moved.

As the following anecdote shows, Ravel was not a great conductor. Two weeks after I performed my Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony, Ravel came to conduct the orchestra in a festival of his music. Traditionally, the Boston Symphony played the same program two days in a row. I was unable to attend the first concert but I arrived in time for the second. I heard Ravel conduct Rapsodie espagnole. It was really something. Fortunately the orchestra had already performed it under Koussevitsky. They did not even look at Ravel during the performance because he was doing strange things. The performance was a triumph, however, in spite of this. After the concert I went to congratulate him. Ravel replied, 'Too bad you were not here yesterday. It was even better.' He was completely unaware. He conceived of things that did not even happen. For instance, he would say, 'My Valse needs to be conducted without any tempo changes throughout.' When he conducted it, however, he had already changed the tempo by the third measure.

The Ravelian rigor is not a myth, however. Ravel simply did not always adhere to it. For example, I attended a house concert where Ravel had been hired to perform his Sonata for Violin and Piano with Kochanski. Ravel missed a measure and poor Kochanski tried to find him, jumping back and forth in the score until the end of the movement. They never did find each other. Ravel was not exactly a virtuoso, however, and just like in his conducting he intended things that he did not actually do. Ravel, however, was a good pianist. In order to write works for the piano such as his, you need to know your instrument well.

Sergei Prokofiev was one of the greatest pianist I have ever known. I heard Prokofiev perform even works other than his and it was absolutely fabulous. I heard him once in a house concert perform the last Beethoven Sonata and I can assure you that it was from the great school of pianists. He certainly was a generous man, although not very communicative. If he said, 'I quite liked it,' then you knew it was his highest compliment for a musical work. He was a very devoted, sincere and honest friend. He was incapable of doing or saying anything against a colleague and there was not a shred of opportunism in him. This is rare in our profession. Prokofiev knew quite well what he wanted and he was keenly aware of his own worth. At the same time he remained humble. The facts speak for themselves. He is one of the most frequently performed composers in the world and I believe this recognition is well deserved. On the other hand, not all his output is of an even quality. The man who wrote such incredible masterpieces, however, must be, undoubtedly, one of the great figures in contemporary music.

At the Ballets Russes I knew Serge Diaghilev very well. I also knew Massine, with whom I worked as well, and also Madame Stravinsky—Stravinsky's second wife—who took part in the Ballets Russes for a time.

In Europe, I knew Igor Stravinsky quite well but our great friendship developed later in America. I knew him because we would meet in either Paris, abroad, somewhere on vacation or in Venice. It was during our exile in California, however, that we became truly intimate friends. As far as the relationship between Stravinsky and Diaghilev is concerned, I believe that it was very much a symbiotic relationship. I think that Diaghilev influenced Stravinsky as much as Stravinsky influenced Diaghilev. Compare, for example, Tomasini's Les femmes de bonne humeur with Pulcinella. Diaghilev commissioned both works. The former is a charming piece and the latter, a seemingly harmless work, practically caused a musical revolution. Since then, every composer has written a 'Pulcinella.' Pulcinella may have been more influential than Le Sacre du printemps, possibly because the music was more accessible.

I believe that Stravinsky's primary principle was to never do the same thing twice. He was completely indifferent to the musical material that he used. Everything he touched he virtually made his own. This was his unique, uncanny ability. This does not apply, however, to the late period which I choose not to discuss since it completely escapes me. For me, this period is an enigma. I believe that Stravinsky was always very independent. In spite of his reputation as a bon vivant, he had perfect integrity as an artist—at least up until the time of the Rake's Progress. He only did what he thought was right. The evolution of Stravinsky's work is characterized by a definite rigor and discipline. In my opinion, the entire period from Firebird to Rake's Progress follows a single thread. Although it is not readily apparent, with some distance one is able to see unity in diversity and diversity in unity. He always had the same compositional philosophy. I like Rake's Progress very much in spite of all that has been said about it. I think it is a very beautiful work.

My opinion of Stravinsky is very subjective because in his letters he referred to me as his "friend of the heart." He was a very dear friend to me and I was extremely touched when he sent me a telegram and a letter after my wife died (1953). I may have been his best friend, despite our age difference. As I said earlier, we were constantly together in the United States. He was very open with me. We shared our personal stories. My wife and I frequently went to his home and we played six-hand versions of the Bach Cantatas. When I arrived in late 1941, the first of his works that he showed me was Danses concertantes. Next he showed me Scčnes de ballet. Also there was the famous Circus Polka dedicated to an elephant. These were all commissions. Later he wrote Symphony in Three Movements and the Ebony Concerto. In the latter work I saw how demanding Stravinsky was toward himself. Obviously jazz rhythms were not foreign to him. He became acquainted with jazz during World War II, thanks to Ernest Ansermet who introduced him to it. Stravinsky even wrote true jazz compositions: Ragtime and Ebony Concerto. He did not minimize the influence of jazz rhythms in his music. Rather, he was very proud of it. Ragtime and Piano Rag Music contained an astonishing wealth of rhythms. He was not very familiar, however, with jazz notation. Subsequently he methodically sought the information he needed. Often he would telephone me asking, for example, 'Is the baritone sax written an octave higher or at the same octave as it sounds?' Stravinsky was extremely demanding of himself.

Contrary to what many people believed, he was a bon vivant and the most ebullient man imaginable. I have great admiration and affection for him. Occasionally he would have harsh comments but they would apply to works that did not deserve better. The reason I wrote a biography on Stravinsky was to set the record straight. Too many stupid statements have been made about him, for instance, that he kept changing his musical language. Actually, Stravinsky's greatest achievement is that he never repeated himself and he remained true to himself. When one considers Stravinsky's entire output, one always finds a unique common thread. It is Stravinsky and no one else.

I met Arnold Schoenberg for the first time in 1926, at the Zurich International Festival. Later I also saw him often in Berlin and Vienna. Every time I visited Germany—before Hitler of course—Schoenberg always invited me to his home. He was extremely kind to me. Regarding musical matters he even quoted me in his letters. When we met again in America we saw each other quite often. Contrary to what most people thought, Schoenberg was not a fanatic about his compositional system. For five years we served on a composition jury and I can say that serial and twelve-tone issues were the least interesting to him. He conceived of those systems as a language but not a language for everyone. They suited him. He would adapt the musical language of others but he was never an iconoclast. I can verify that when Schoenberg studied the work of a student he made sure that the dominant resolved to the tonic. At UCLA he practiced a traditional and rigorous method of teaching. In his personality he was not a fanatic whatsoever. He adored Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss. He had found a compositional style for himself but not necessarily for others.

In the United States during the World War II, Stravinsky and Schoenberg ignored each other and I never managed to get them together at my home. Their disagreement was due to their different aesthetics and techniques. Perhaps Schoenberg was partly to blame because he wrote sarcastic comments about Stravinsky. He called him the little 'Modernsky,' which was not in the best taste. I believe Stravinsky respected Schoenberg but did not like him personally. One can have respect for someone without having a personal affinity for that individual. In my opinion, Schoenberg was somewhat bitter because he had less success than Stravinsky. Schoenberg was more systematic. Stravinsky, rightfully so, did not like systems so he often changed his writing style while always remaining the great Stravinsky.

When Béla Bartók first came to Paris and to the Revue musicale, I got to know him very well. He was truly an exceptional man and he had the kind of integrity that is rarely found among artists. Bartók was not terribly cheerful. He gave the impression of being somewhat disoriented amidst contemporary life and I do not mean in music but in life. While in New York City together, I recall him saying, 'Why are all these people yelling? Why are they in such a hurry?'

During World War II Bartók's circumstances were dreadful. Thanks to Koussevitsky, he was able to manage the final weeks of his life. His funeral was paid for by the American Composers' Society. [7] In my opinion, if Bartók had lived longer, he would certainly not have followed contemporary trends. I believe that just like Stravinsky until Rake's Progress, Bartók was tending toward an increasing simplification in his music. He was becoming progressively more tonal as well. Like everyone else, Bartók was somewhat influenced by Schoenberg but not from a systematic point of view. One can find marvelous things in Schoenberg's music, particularly if one does not force them into an exclusive system because then, they become merely academic. Schoenberg's music is enriching. It is not a panacea.

The story of George Gershwin is a very moving one. He was adorable, naive but very spoiled. His roots were in the poverty of the ghetto but his success was meteoric. This charming young man would ask me the most disarming and innocent questions, such as: 'Do you really think I am a genius?' To which I would answer, 'But of course George, you are a genius.' It made him very happy. He was not the least opportunistic. In my opinion he was the greatest American composer. Gershwin had a melodic gift that can be seen in his progression from the short songs to his opera, Porgy and Bess, a masterpiece and a jewel in twentieth century opera. And to think that he died at age 37!

I met Gershwin in Paris during his first visit there. I saw him again at my Boston debut when I performed with Koussevitsky. We became great friends. I introduced Gershwin to Ravel upon my return to New York City and Gershwin invited us both to see a play entitled Porgy and Bess—a drama performed by black actors. I was amazed by the performance. At that time Gershwin was considering a different subject for an opera, the Dybbuk, but the rights had already gone to another composer. [8] During that time Gershwin was surrounded by adoring fans as well as parasites and his family followed his every move.

At that time, Gershwin's technical knowledge about music was still rather limited since his music was always orchestrated by others. This was true for the Rhapsody in Blue and, I believe, also for the Piano Concerto in F—a ravishing piece! Gershwin was always surrounded by his entourage and his family: his father, mother, sister, brother and sister-in-law. So I said to him, 'Listen, George, you should really leave this atmosphere for several months and come to Paris, and get rid of all these people who are constantly around you. Learn your trade. With your talent it would be a pity to miss this opportunity.' He replied, 'It’s a deal. I will come.' Well, I seriously doubted that he would actually come to Paris. One day, however, he phoned me. 'I'm here! I'm at the Majestic.' He came to Paris on his own. This was a surprising turn of events. I jumped in my car and drove to the Majestic Hotel. When I arrived, there was Gershwin surrounded by all his family: his mother, father, brother, and so on. In the end the family departed and Gershwin remained in Paris for a while.

While Gershwin was composing An American in Paris, he worked with me on the orchestration of this piece. He had a real affinity for orchestration. He had sixth sense for it. There were some things that he did not know but he had great intuition. I merely showed him that certain instrumental combinations were not effective and did not sound good. For example, a certain passage might sound better on the clarinet rather than the oboe. Gershwin, however, knew very well what he wanted. Of course his harmonies are very composite, often influenced by Ravel and Rachmaninoff. This is not important, however. The substance of Gershwin's music is so beautiful and attractive. He was also influenced by Poulenc. From my view, I was always keenly interested in jazz, primarily its rhythmic structures and tone colors. I was also attracted to the independent use of tone color and the specific type of polyphony found in jazz. This was rather new, especially with the onset of the New Orleans style. It was Gershwin who helped me the most to become familiar with this style of music. Anyway, I found this to be the most beautiful period of jazz.

The epitome of symphonic jazz is clearly Rhapsody in Blue. In my opinion, however, it is not Gershwin's best work, although it was the first jazz composition to be presented in a symphonic concert. I was instrumental in bringing the Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F to the Paris stage for the first time at the Concerts Pasdeloup. I cannot recall who played them but Rhené-Baton was conducting and he adored this style of music. [9] I believe it was the first time that Gershwin shared a program with Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. It was a triumph.

Before Gershwin, jazz was mostly performed in nightclubs and small gatherings, especially the authentic jazz from New Orleans. Gershwin studied this style of jazz very closely and managed to lend his own personality to it. Finally, Gershwin was a marvelous tune smith. He even integrated small pop tunes into his music. This is his legacy.

I remember Albert Einstein as I would remember a saint. He was forever young. I played music with him. Although he played the violin in an approximate fashion, it gave him great pleasure. He only played the Mozart Sonatas. He may have played out of tune but he was so happy to perform this music. In life, Einstein was hardly a practical person. If he corrected his grandchildren's math homework he always gave them a zero. One imagines Einstein's laboratory cluttered with test tubes and instruments but it was virtually empty—only a black table and a few sheets of paper. This was not how Hollywood has portrayed this great man. He was a very simple man, a wonderful man.

With Einstein you could truly discuss music. I even discussed aesthetics with him. At the time of our last meeting before my departure to New York City, I was deeply moved by the comment he made about science. It can apply to life as well: 'True progress in science, art or society is what remains after fashion has passed.' For me, this is a deep and profound truth.

I also knew Thomas Mann. We met often during my stay in America. Frequently we would visit one another. Here was a man who was noble, very austere, as any grand bourgeois from Lübeck would be. He was, of course, a great writer. He was rather reserved but had a passion for music. By the way, he mentioned me in passing in his Doktor Faust. In addition to his literary work, I had considerable admiration for the man, particularly since he left Germany of his own volition. He could have remained in Germany. Instead, however, he chose to openly separate himself from the Nazis.

I am enormously indebted to Charlie Chaplin. My family and I owe him our lives. During World War II, he saved us by making it possible to leave France and to find refuge in the United States.

I first met Chaplin in 1927 during my first concert tour of the United States. In fact, I dedicated my Second Piano Concerto to him. He was a very kind man and we soon became close friends. We had a great affinity for one another. He even invited us to a private showing of his latest film, The Circus, before its release. We cemented our friendship during the War years in the United States and remained close until the time of his death.

Shortly before his death, I saw him again in Venice. He had invited me to watch the sailboat races from the balcony of his hotel. There was a certain sadness within Chaplin's humor. He was a very complex person. For me, he was the greatest actor and creative genius of this century. Even in his humorous films one can find a dramatic side that expresses the solitude of mankind. In his daily life he was like everyone else, very polite with excellent manners—a true English gentleman.

Chaplin was a bon vivant and too much so! He was constantly embroiled in lawsuits. When a new baby was born in Hollywood the rumor was that it was Chaplin's. Some people said, 'How does he do it?' Others answered, 'He has a bicycle.' What an exaggeration. He had, however, eleven children with his fourth wife Oona O'Neill, and that does not include children from previous wives.

A bon vivant he was, and he loved music with a passion. For him, music was an intuitive experience. In any case, he was a very sensitive musician, judging from the scores he wrote for his own films. He may not have been a true musical expert but he had a musician's instinct and he certainly had good taste.

In general, I did not find Hollywood to be a very interesting or an enriching environment. I found there, however, a number of great personalities such as Charles Laughton, for instance. He was a great actor, highly educated and very refined. Also there was Charles Boyer, whom I often saw in Hollywood. During my previous visits to the United States I met Fritz Lang, Dudley Nichols, Ernst Lubitsch and Greta Garbo. Apart from these great artists, the famous movie stars I met were, intellectually speaking, very limited. In Hollywood, a dialogue with a movie star was a monologue. It was 'me, me, me' and nothing else. Still, I have fond memories of my stay in Hollywood apart from missing France and wanting to return home. I was surrounded by many wonderful friends. The American people were very generous towards me and made me feel at home.

Portrait of A Composer
Appendix: Bibliography, Lists, etc.
PMJ - Current Issue


[1]. The following narrative was transcribed, compiled and translated by the authors from recorded conversations in French between the composer and Radio-France's Michel Hoffman (December 12, 1967) and Marie-Hélène Pinel (March 15, 1980). These recorded conversations were generously provided by Association des Amis d'Alexandre Tansman, Paris. All the notes are added by the translators. Brief biographical information about people mentioned by Tansman is included in the Appendix. [Back]

[2]. Tansman means Ravel's short masterpiece, Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899). [Back]

[3]. In Warsaw, Tansman studied the piano with Piotr Rytel, and composition with Henryk Melcer. [Back]

[4]. The winning works were Impression, Praeludium in B major, both for piano and a Romance for violin and piano. [Back]

[5]. A French national bank specializing in loans and savings. [Back]

[6]. Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). [Back]

[7]. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in 1914. [Back]

[8]. On October 30, 1929, Gershwin in fact had signed a contract "to compose the music of a new opera [on The Dybbuk] for a performance by April 1931." Henry Ahlsberg, translator of the play, was to write the libretto. Gershwin worked on the project for a year, researching Jewish folk and sacred usic, and writing sketches. However, the collaborators soon found out that the musical rights have already been granted to an Italian composer, Lodovico Rocca, who composed the music for a 1934 Italian version of the play. Abandoning this project opened the way for Gershwin to choose the subject of Porgy and Bess for his opera. Cf. Edward Jablonski: Gershwin. New York: Doubleday, 1987, pp. 168-169. [Back]

[9]. The European premiere of Gershwin's Piano concerto in F took place on May 22, 1928, in Paris. Dmitri Tiomkin was at the keyboard. The performance took place at the Pairs Opera under the direction of Vladimir Golschmann, not Rhené-Baton. A week before the event, Tiomkin hosted a party "with a distinguished guest list" that included George and Ira Gershwin, composer Vladimir Dukelski (alias Vernon Duke, a collaborator of Gershwin), Arthur Honegger, Robert Russell Bennett, Maurice Chevalier, and Tansman. Cf. E. Jablonski, op. cit. [Back]


Publisher: Polish Music Reference Center.
Editor: Maria Anna Harley.
Design: Maria Anna Harley & Marcin Depinski.
20 July - 22 September 1998.
Comments and inquiries by e-mail: polmusic@email.usc.edu