By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 3/3: Tansman & Dvorak
Alexandre Tansman (1897-1896): Trio No.2 (1928)
Few composers in the twentieth century had such an exceptionally far-ranging career as Alexandre Tansman. Born in Poland in 1897 at Lodz, also the birthplace of his friend, the pianist Arthur 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 Piano Trio No. 1 (now lost) and also later conducted his Fifth Symphony in Paris.
In 1919, after winning in the three first prizes in the national composition competition organized in the newly established Polish Republic (the imperial powers that had dominated the region for generations finally disintegrated during the First World War), 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 so-called “Ecole de Paris”, a loose group of composers from central and eastern Europe that included Martinů, and Tcherepnin. His compositions were conducted by the most famous conductors of the time, notably Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, and Dimitri Mitropoulos.
The Piano Trio No.2, of which we will perform an excerpt, was composed in 1928, when Tansman was around 31 years old, just after returning from an extended tour of the United States, where he performed his Second Piano Concerto, a work dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, who was present in the concert hall.
His friendship with Chaplin would indeed prove to be vital to his survival: in 1941, the Tansman family fled Europe, as his Jewish background put him in danger with Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent Nazi occupation of France. He moved to Los Angeles, thanks largely to the efforts of Charlie Chaplin who founded a special visa committee to help his friend. Once settled in California a new chapter of Tansman’s life began: he soon joined the circle of famous émigré artists which included Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and many others. He took to composing film scores and was even nominated for an Oscar in 1946.
When he returned to Paris, his European activity resumed. His works were directed by the most renowned conductors of the day. There were regular commissions from French radio and this final period saw an important number of compositions come to light, notably an oratorio, an opera and his Concerto for Orchestra.
Tansman’s ability to draw on his Jewish and Polish roots with great sophistication is what gives his music its unique flavor.
Dvorak (1841-1904): from Bohemia to America
When we consider the 19th century in terms of its artistic production, we find ourselves almost obliged to reflect on the impact that colonial expansion and imperial dominance had on musical creativity. Countries like England, France and Austria dominated, while other nations and peoples suffered from that domination to varying degrees. Dvorak is a very interesting case to consider in this regard.
Dissatisfied with the reception that his music had been receiving in his native Bohemia (the Czech Republic of today), and with the encouragement of his mentor Brahms and the influential music critic Hanslick, Dvorak sought to promote his music in the Austrian capital. He did rapidly gain international attention through his premieres in Vienna, but the strength of anti-Czech feeling caused him much frustration and created obstacles to his professional progress. The rise of Czech nationalism was obviously seen in a negative light in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Dvorak became a target for some.
In 1892 Dvorak decided to accept the offer of a position as director of the recently-established National Conservatory in New York (now no longer existence, the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression forced the institution to close its doors for good). This position not only offered Dvorak a more-than-generous salary, but also allowed him to devote time to exploring the folk music of the African-Americans: the Spirituals. In an interview with the New York Herald Dvorak even claimed
« In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. »
Several years of fruitful composition followed, notably with the writing of his New World Symphony, which drew on Native American musical traditions.
Needless to say, this fascination with indigenous and black musical culture was most untypical at this time. Dvorak was one of the very few white composers to take a serious interest in African American folklore. He collaborated with African American musicians, with whom he shared the desire to make the Spirituals and the music of African-Americans a serious genre in the eyes of public – music that could be received into the concert hall just like the lieder of Schumann or Brahms.
Claims to justify the inferiority of black people often sought evidence from science during that time, as can be seen from the article below, taken from the review The Musical Visitor in 1895:
The Dumky Trio was composed just before Dvorak’s departure for America. The word “Dumka” (plural “Dumky”) describes a Slavic dance form with a clear alternation between melancholic music and fiery, animated passages. In the words of the composer himself: “At certain points it will be like a serious song, at others like a happy dance…” The Dumka is indeed a recurring theme in Dvorak’s chamber music, but in this case the form is unusual: it contains a succession of six “Dumka,” each with its own very distinctive character and great expressiveness. Scholars still debate as to whether the work can be divided into individual movements, or should be regarded, as the English musicologist Alec Robertson has asserted, “as a sonnet in music”.
In any case, the Dumky Trio remains one of the Czech master’s best-loved works and we are delighted to perform it for the very first time in Montreal as part of this concert!