Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, tom-tom, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone), celesta, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Tansman first met Igor Stravinsky in 1920, shortly after moving to Paris. He had studied at the conservatory in his hometown of Lodz and completed a law degree at the University of Warsaw. But even though he won several prizes for his music in a Polish national competition, Tansman was unhappy with the reception of his music at home, and he moved to the French capital when he was 22. [CZECH ALERT]There his circle included Maurice Ravel and fellow emigres Bohuslav Martinu° and Alexander Tcherepnin, in addition to Stravinsky and others.
Tansman had almost immediate success, as a pianist and as a composer. He wrote and toured prodigiously, becoming a French artistic hero and, in 1938, a nationalized French citizen. Being a Jew and the composer of works such as the Rapsodie hébraïque, though, put him and his family at risk with the rise of Nazi Germany and its conquest of France in 1940. Tansman fled Occupied France to Nice, and with the help of Charlie Chaplin obtained a U.S. visa, ultimately settling in Los Angeles in 1941.
There he renewed his friendship with Stravinsky, collaborating with him in the Genesis Suite, a work that also enlisted Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, and Nathaniel Shilkret. He returned to Paris after the war, and published a biography of Stravinsky there in 1948. Tansman had a proclivity for homages and memorial pieces, and following the death of Stravinsky in 1971, he composed the Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky. (A stèle is a slab-like memorial or grave marker. Tansman followed that in 1975 with his Elégie à la mémoire de Darius Milhaud, another old friend.)
Though the chromaticism and polytonality of Stèle is quite characteristic of much of Tansman’s music, it still sounds like little else in his output. A composer himself of a number of ballets, Tansman does refer to Stravinsky’s Apollo and The Rite of Spring, though not as conspicuous quotations. It is in his orchestration – particularly the hard glitter of glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, celesta, and piano – that Tansman most obviously honors his friend. He softens that edge with divided strings, often trilling or in harmonics, creating, like Stravinsky so often, something at once abstract yet deeply felt.
After a haunted beginning over a rumbling timpani pedal tone, the vibraphone and woodwinds take over the opening elegy, with a bluesy tune for oboe that might have come from Gershwin. This builds to an extravagant, impassioned climax that nonetheless dwindles quickly, allowing the oboe the final say.
Tansman lets it rip in the rhythmic study that is the middle movement, maniacally drilling violins set off metrical kilter by heavy wind chords and a leaping bass line. Violence is never far away in this movement, but it soon develops a quite Stravinskyan interest in counterpoint and contrasting textures.
The final Lamento is delicately scored, with a lovely muted brass chorale and a gamelan-like passage for vibes, glockenspiel, and celesta. The coda is a serene farewell, with a soft funeral march in the timpani and the trumpet’s suggestion of Taps echoed by vibes and celesta.