Concert Notes

Alexandre Tansman’s “Polish Rhapsody”

Notes by TŌN horn player Stefan Williams

The Composer
Alexandre Tansman was a Polish composer, pianist, and conductor. He studied law in addition to music, but his professional life was that of a musician. In 1919, he won the first composition competition in Poland following its independence from the Russian Empire. This served as a springboard for his career with a series of concerts with the Warsaw Philharmonic and nearly a decade of international touring following his win. He was approached by founding members of Les Six, a group of composers reacting with neoclassicism to romanticism and impressionism, to convince him to join the group. He refused out of a desire to retain his independence, but would nonetheless remain a staunch advocate for neoclassicism.

Protesting the Nazis
While he was enjoying international success, his music was not performed as widely in Poland. This was likely a result of increasing anti-semitic sentiment, as Tansman’s family was of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry. It was in response to the Polish government’s collaboration with the Nazi regime that in an act of protest he renounced his Polish citizenship before becoming a naturalized French citizen in 1938. Despite that, he never severed his cultural ties to Poland, firmly believing himself belonging within Polish culture. 

The Music
Written following the Nazi invasion of Poland, his Polish Rhapsody was dedicated to the defenders of Warsaw during World War II. He utilized quotes from the Polish national anthem, which symbolized the Polish state in an effort to evoke patriotic meaning. Additionally, he divided the work through tempo markings in the style of traditional Polish dances (e.g. Tempo di polonaise, Tempo di mazurka, Tempo di mazur), notably the mazurka, which was the national dance of Poland. He was quoted in the dedication to have said “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live. What the alien force has taken from us, we shall retrieve with a sabre.”