Alexandre Tansman was born to a Jewish family in Poland, where he began composing as a youth and where he commenced conservatory studies in 1908. He also studied law, even earning a doctorate in law in Warsaw in 1918, but he continued his musical growth there as well, and in 1919 he won prizes in a Polish national music competition for three of his pieces. His penchant for even mild chromaticism was still considered too progressive and foreign by many local critics, and his reception was stalled by their reaction. Having developed an affinity for the French Impressionists—particularly Ravel and Debussy—he relocated to Paris and made his debut there as a pianist in 1920. He quickly formed associations in Paris with both Ravel and Stravinsky.
“Ravel taught me to develop a sense of musical economy,” Tansman later declared, “of the narrow and intimate correspondence between the shape and the form of expression, to despise empty palaver and padding.”
In Paris, Tansman became acquainted with the coterie of French musical intellectuals and composers who were known as Les Six. That group also included Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. He also joined a circle of distinguished visiting composers. Within a year his music was being promoted in both France and the United States by maestros such as Vladimir Golschmann and Serge Koussevitzky. Throughout the decade, Tansman’s orchestral works were programmed by leading conductors and played by such artists as Artur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz.
In 1927, Tansman made his first American tour as a soloist, followed by a successful world tour in 1933. He became a French national in 1938, but the German invasion and occupation of France soon afterward occasioned his emigration to America in 1941. He settled in Los Angeles, where, like many émigré composers in Hollywood, he wrote film music as well, including the scores for such pictures as Flesh and Fantasy (1943), directed by Julien Divivier, whose Poil de Carotte Tansman had scored more than a decade earlier in France; Paris Underground (1945), directed by Gregory Ratoff; and Sister Kenny (1946), directed by Dudley Nichols.
In 1946, Tansman returned to Paris with his family. In the immediate postwar period his works were widely performed, and, in 1948, he completed a book on Stravinsky. He was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy in 1977, and received the Polish Medal of Cultural Merit in 1983.
There are more than 300 works in Tansman’s catalogue. Although he often utilized Polish dance rhythms and folk elements, his music is generally considered to be in the 20th-century neoclassical realm of such composers as Hindemith and Stravinsky. He embraced a chromatic harmonic language, especially in his prewar period, but he never abandoned tonality. Like Milhaud, he also incorporated jazz features in a number of works. In general, his style has been characterized as lucid and lyrical, with structural reliance on formal logic.