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ClassicsOnline Home » TANSMAN: Chamber Music with Clarinet
Polish by birth, Alexandre Tansman settled in France, a major influence on his composition.
He was a close associate of Stravinsky, particularly during his war-time exile
in America. Tansman favoured the clarinet, in particular, among wind instruments.
The works included here date principally from the later period of his life, with the
clarinet sometimes recalling Polish elements in compositions of some variety. His more
familiar Triptyque for string quartet is an earlier work, written in 1930.
By David Denton
Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986)
Chamber Music with Clarinet
Musique for clarinet and string quartet (1982)
Musique à Six for clarinet, string quartet and piano (1977)
Trois pièces for clarinet, harp and string quartet (1970)
Triptyque for string quartet (1930)
Few composers in the twentieth century have such an exceptionally far-ranging career as Alexandre Tansman. Born in Poland in 1897 at Lódz, also the birthplace of his friend, the pianist Artur Rubinstein, Tansman studied at the conservatory there and in Warsaw. He had as a fellow-student the famous conductor and composer Paul Kletzki, who, as a violinist, took part in the first performance of Tansman's now lost Piano Trio No. 1 and later conducted also in Paris his Fifth Symphony [Marco Polo 8.223379]. After winning in 1919 the three first prizes in the national composition competition organized in the newly established Polish Republic, Tansman settled in Paris, where he had the support and encouragement of Ravel and Roussel. He established friendly relations with composers of his own generation such as Milhaud and Honegger and was a member of the Ecole de Paris, a group of composers from central and eastern Europe that included Bohuslav Martinu, Marcel Mihalovici, Tibor Harsányi and Alexandre Tcherepnin. His compositions were conducted by the most famous conductors of the period, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, Vladimir Golschmann and Dimitri Mitropoulos. In 1927–28 he made his first tour of the United States, performing, with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, his Second Piano Concerto, a work dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, who was present in the concert hall. In 1932–33 Tansman embarked on a world tour during which he had the opportunity, in India, to meet Ghandi. In New York he had the surprise of hearing his Four Polish Dances programmed by Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Later it was thanks to a committee established by Toscanini, Chaplin, Ormandy and Heifetz that he and his family were able to leave France, occupied at the beginning of the Second World War. During his exile in America his career underwent considerable development and his works were played by the best American orchestras ( New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, St Louis, Washington, and Cincinnati ). He lived in Los Angeles and counted Stravinsky among his closest friends. From this almost daily contact later came a book on the Russian composer that is still regarded as authoritative. When he returned to Paris, his European activity resumed. His works were directed by the most renowned conductors of the day, such as Rafael Kubelik, André Cluytens, Jascha Horenstein, Ferenc Fricsay, Charles Brück, Jean Fournet and Bruno Maderna. There were regular commissions from French radio and this final period brought an important number of compositions, among them the oratorio Isaië le Prophète, the opera Sabbataï Zevi and the Concerto for Orchestra [Marco Polo 8.223757].
Tansman liked wind instruments, but perhaps, if one considers the use of the instrument in his symphonic works, he found that the clarinet offered the widest range of expressive possibilities, from lyrical song tinged with romanticism to jazz, with exuberant colours capable of evoking Jewish or Polish folk-music. After having written in 1952 a Concertino for oboe, clarinet and strings, in 1957 he wrote for the celebrated clarinettist Louis Cahuzac a Clarinet Concerto.
His Musique for clarinet and string quartet was the last chamber music written by Tansman. This was the result of a commission from the International Clarinet Society of Anderson (U.S.A.) received by the composer in February 1982. This composition ended a long series of pieces of the same title that sought to bring out specific instrumental groups (string orchestra or string quartet, orchestra, piano quintet, guitar and chamber orchestra, clarinet, piano quartet, harp and string orchestra). He wrote the work quickly during the summer of 1982 and dedicated it to the society president, Jerry D. Pierce. The first performance was given on 11 August 1983 at Houston by Jerry Pierce and the Nuovo String Quartet. The ternary structure, slow-fast-slow, unified by a recurrent motif, is concentrated around the Scherzo that presents material that sometimes recalls the Musique à Six. The Canzona is the last example of this continuous melodic style, a careful structure of linked motifs, and expressing an intense lyricism so characteristic of Tansman. The clarinet almost constantly seizes on this melody, while the string quartet fulfils various functions, sometimes purely of harmonic accompaniment, sometimes providing a countermelody, most often entrusted to the first violin, accompanied by the other instruments; at other times rich polyphonic textures are found in which each part sings individually. The central movement combines in its first part some elements of perpetuum mobile in the quartet with, from the clarinet, a first theme in discontinued appoggiaturas, and capricious rhythms full of humour. The humorous tone persists in the clarinet, in spite of a more singing passing melodic outburst, with a rhythmic accompaniment of pizzicato gradually taken up by the quartet. The exposition finishes with a passage for strings alone of wild almost Bartókian energy. In the form of a trio, a middle section, Un poco meno vivo, introduces some elements of fugue, while avoiding any strict imitation. After a return to the original tempo launched by a brief descending clarinet figure, the very free and varied recapitulation is introduced by a rhythmic string pizzicato passage, to which the clarinet adds a humorous motif of five notes, repeated five times. A short clarinet cadenza leads to an abridged repetition of the perpetuum mobile by the strings alone, relieved by a clarinet perpetuum mobile in semiquavers, principally made up of sixths over a pizzicato quartet accompaniment. To this is added, finally, a full phrase stated by the cello. A short Meno vivo section in notes of longer duration alludes to the first movement, and is followed by a coda, an accelerando in the form of an ostinato, ending in D flat. The Notturno Finale begins with a clarinet solo that takes up again the rôle of presenting the melody. The clarinet's dreamy melody, with a chordal accompaniment on a rhythmic ostinato from the quartet, ends with two allusions to the recurrent motif of the first movement, and the whole is resolved in a calm C major.
Of more imposing proportions, Musique à Six (1977) is also a late work. It offers a major chamber music score of Tansman's last period. Commissioned by Radio France in honour of the composer's eightieth birthday, the work was first performed on 24 October 1977 in Paris at the Maison de la Radio by the Ensemble Pupitre 14, conducted by Edmond Rosenfeld. The scoring for six instruments is echoed in the division into six movements. The important number of movements indicates that the work is, according to the composer, in the tradition of the Cassations and Serenades of Mozart or Brahms, but in a contemporary spirit and language. Musique à Six belongs to a musical conception that seeks the pleasure of the performers and the entertainment of the audience. Here one finds some of the composer's distinctive aesthetic characteristics: the intermezzo in the style of a perpetuum mobile, fugal textures, nocturnal music and fantasy, framed here by a prelude and postlude closely related by shared material. The Preludio opens like a fan with the successive entries of the six instruments, from the high notes of the violin to the low notes of the bass clarinet, a gesture often used by Tansman in his final period. The wind instrument has the principal melodic function while the quartet provides harmonic support in chromatic progressions, coloured intermittently by the piano (chords of fourths, motifs in disjunct intervals where sevenths predominate, and even chromatic clusters). The short intermezzo Perpetuum Pianissimo begins with muted strings in a perpetuum mobile of very chromatic semiquavers, which might recall, but more modestly, one of the Four Movements for Orchestra [Marco Polo 8.223379]. The movement fades away into the flutter-tonguing of the clarinet then string tremolos, with the inversion of a dominant seventh chord. The Allegro risoluto (con doppio Fugato) is music full of energy that offers connections with the material of the preceding intermezzo: it contains fugal elements, the harmony sometimes delightfully spiced with little piano clusters. The nocturnal music is a favourite theme of Tansman since the youthful Sinfonietta No. 1 (1924). In the Notturno the clarinet takes up again its leading melodic rôle. At the centre of this movement Tansman includes eight bars of a string quartet written in 1909 (at the age of twelve), as if in his old age the composer wanted to show with this score that the course of his life was nearing its end. The Capriccio alla Polacca, full of dynamism and energy with its short figures, suggests in its liveliness the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony. The clarinet is heard there in tones borrowed fom jazz but also from Polish folk-music. The Postludio romantico is like a symmetrical inversion of the Preludio : successive entries move from the lowest to the highest, the clarinet leads the melody, there are sparse and very restrained elements from the piano and the work ends in complete serenity on a C major chord. Musique à Six is dedicated to the conductor Renard Czajkowski.
The Three Pieces, for clarinet, harp and string quartet, were another commission from O.R.T.F. and were written in 1970. The Andante sostenuto is a prelude in ternary form that begins with motifs of unequal duration, repeated in the manner of ostinatos over the harmonic support of the quartet, which is gradually transformed into the free polyphony of the six instruments. After a short middle section the same motifs and harmonies are repeated, but the polyphony, barely sketched, is replaced by tranquil chords, in a completely diatonic context. The Vivace possibile belongs in character to the world of the Tansmanian scherzo and follows a particular plan, AABCCD. With its continuous semiquavers in the string quartet, A is like a perpetuum mobile on which fragmentary figures are imposed, coming together in a fuller phrase. B presents a continuous clarinet phrase, at first accompanied by the tremolo chords of the quartet, then by an original polytonal texture, based on a single cell of four notes in its original form or inverted, constantly transposed in all the parts. C continues the perpetuum mobile while the clarinet offers wide leaps and the first violin an upper countermelody. D is a coda, which, with a motif repeated five times by the clarinet (and coming from the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony ) shows how Tansman, amid the wide range of expression that he liked to explore, knew how to manage humour in music without any vulgarity, like a wink of complicity as much to his player as to his audience. The third piece includes an introduction Lento cantabile that starts as a duet for clarinet and harp. The Allegro con moto is an energetic piece, with bounding rhythms, repeated a second time after the powerful intervals of tritones in the bass (a very Tansmanian gesture present in the Canzone of Musique and in the first panel of Triptyque ), which ends in a short coda.
The Triptyque is one of the compositons of Tansman that is most often played, by string orchestra or by string quartet, the composer having envisaged two versions. Commissioned by the famous American patron Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, to whom the work is dedicated, this work was composed in Paris between September and December 1930 and should form part of the repertoire of every string quartet because of its vitality and the formidable energy of its outer movements, the warm lyricism of its central movement and its idiomatic string writing. In the Allegro risoluto few symmetries or formal classical repetitions will be noticed, insofar as the materials are a constantly renewed, resulting in a continuous flow of music, with articulation kept in the background. In this sense this movement appears to have an unsuspected novelty, as it depends on a form of dynamic development of short motifs, perpetually varied in their tonalities and their surroundings, like a structure comparable to that of a mosaic. Nevertheless it is firmly anchored in a tonality, mainly based on long ostinato pedal notes, only sometimes disturbed by chromatic progressions. It will be noticed that the relationships of tonalities are deliberately held as far apart as possible (as the first motif in E flat minor in the viola over a cello pedal of A natural, at the interval of a tritone), as though to increase the tension of the music. At the same time the rhythm, under the fundamental regular impulse of the bass, appears often to contradict the metrical framework by the use of cross-accents or syncopations that enrich the rhythmic interplay.
The second movement Andante has a first idea stated by the viola, completed by two countermelodies that enter in succession in the second and then the first violin. A second idea follows in thirds on the first violin, characteristically accompanied by alternating fifths from the cello, at the same time as chromatic counterpoint from the two other instruments. A diatonic melody of remarkable ingenuity is heard briefly from the first violin. After a first climax that develops the first idea with the violins, the exposition is repeated, including the thirds. A new expressive phrase from the first violin leads to the second climax, less intense than the first, while over a tonic G pedal the thirds fade into unreal harmonics. This fine movement ends with a short confident coda.
The Presto finale offers a Perpetuum mobile theme in semiquavers interrupted by a slow episode, Andante cantabile, first introduced by a chorale, quickly replaced, with the introduction of swaying fifths on the cello, by a berceuse. This takes on a Polish colour when the viola then the cello intone a simple melody of which the fourth degree of the scale is raised (F sharp in C major). The recapitulation of the Presto re-introduces progressively the thematic materials of the first movement until the tempo gradually slows to a Lento, marking the return of the Polish berceuse theme, this time in D flat, forming the final section.
English version by Keith Anderson
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TANSMAN: Chamber Music with Clarinet