Music Monday: Tansman: String Quartet No. 8

There are some composers who lurk in the background of one's awareness, never wholly forgotten, but not altogether present, either. For years, my only exposure to Alexandre Tansman was his Sonatine for bassoon and piano — I heard someone play it at a summer camp in high school, but I never worked on it myself and it didn't show up on any of the various bassoon CDs that I bought over the years, so while I remembered enjoying it, I couldn't produce much more than the opening gesture and an inaccurate version of the start of the finale. 

And then a little more than a week ago, I heard the LA Phil perform his Stelè in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, and my mind was blown.

Never mind that it sounds a good deal more like a memorial for Messiaen than a stele for Stravinsky, it's an absolute jewel of a piece, and was far and away the best thing on the program. It's not what I'm going to be talking about today. Over the past little-more-than-a-week, I've been binge listening to everything by Tansman I can find on Spotify, and I am officially heels over head about his musical style. This being the place where I gas on about music I like (and also teach myself about its context), it seemed an appropriate place to share my newfound love.

So who is this Alexandre Tansman person, anyway? Born to a Jewish family in Łódź, Poland (which was then under Russian control, but Tansman always maintained that he was a Polish composer, and Łódź is in Poland now, so) in 1897, Tansman moved to Paris after earning a doctorate in law at the University of Warsaw. He was far from religiously devout, but he was still mortally threatened by Hitler's rise to power, and he fled to Los Angeles in 1941. Charlie Chaplin helped him get his entry visa, which gives some sense of the sheer breadth of his contacts — by that point he had already worked with Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin among many others; given the number of Very Famous People he rubbed shoulders with, it's kind of shocking that he isn't better known. (He wasn't limited to artistic figures, either. He also associated with Einstein and Gandhi.) After the War, he returned to Paris, but his time abroad had pushed him off the new music radar, and his by-then conservative neoclassical style put him at odds with the reigning avant garde, and he struggled to regain the momentum of his early career. Still, he kept right on composing, and also maintained an active life as a concert pianist, ultimately going on several world tours. He died in Paris in 1986.

Much as I would like to delve into the context for this work, ten pages of Google results turned up absolutely nothing remotely useful in this regard. (Well, there was one PDF on Page 6 that might have helped, but it was written entirely in Polish, a language I do not understand.) Since my only exposure is thru Spotify, I don't even have CD liner notes to refer to. So I can tell you that it was written in 1956, presumably in Paris, but that's about it. It's not part of the standard repertoire, nor did it herald any shocking upheavals in compositional styles, either generally or for string quartet specifically. It's one of those forgotten works that lingers anonymously in back catalogues, hardly ever seeing the light of day. But it's absolutely captivating, so I'm going to sing its praises all the same.

(A note about the recording before I dive into description: Whoever uploaded these tracks to Spotify cut them extremely close, to the degree that the separate quartets run into one another without pause. As such, I'm very sure that there should be more space between the movements of this quartet than this recording suggests.) The piece begins abruptly with a doggedly churning rhapsody. True to its title, the movement unfolds organically, with no sharp formal delineations, culminating with the upper strings scampering around a jagged theme in octaves with lumbering punctuations from the cello below. Altho the next movement is called a romance, it opens not with something swimming and sentimental, but something tortuous and claustrophobic. A little less than halfway thru, this mood thaws and we get music that is genuinely tender, but the music slips back towards darkness near the end.

Next up is the scherzo, which, for all that it never lets up on its helter-skelter energy, still ends with a cheeky, quiet plonk. The dark, inert opening of the final movement harkens back to the second, albeit even more drained of vitality, and several rounds of adamant, canonic entrances fail to make much of a difference, but just when it seems like we're going to be wandering aimlessly until the double bar, the cello launches into an angular, slippery fugue, which veers between terse dissonance and moments of almost parodical refinement before accelerating to the surprisingly consonant end.