• (2014) Tansman, Stravinsky, Górecki

Tansman, Stravinsky, Górecki
programme note written for
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Julian Rachlin (violin), cond. Andrey Boreyko
Royal Festival Hall, London, 12 April 2014


Recollection and remembrance can take many forms.  The Polish-born Alexandre Tansman not only composed his Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, but had already written a book about the older composer’s life and works (1949).  He knew Stravinsky well, both in the hot-house atmosphere of Paris between the wars and when they were in exile in the USA in the early 1940s.  Tansman admitted: ‘My opinion of Stravinsky is very subjective because in his letters he referred to me as his “friend of the heart”.’  Tansman’s choice of title for his memorial piece reflects the personal nature of his recollection.

Stravinsky too wrote pieces ‘in memoriam’, but his relationship with the past generally emphasised objectivity.  The Violin Concerto comes from a period when he had settled into a distinctive dialogue with 18th-century music, a dialogue that renewed rather than commemorated.  In the context of tonight’s programme, it is interesting to note the significance of what one might call ‘character’ chords.  Tansman’s Stèle opens with one, while the chord for the solo violin that begins Stravinsky’s Concerto also initiates each of the succeeding movements.

Górecki’s Fourth Symphony, receiving its belated world premiere tonight, shares a few if distant stylistic features with Stravinsky, but its main connection – given its descriptive title ‘Tansman Episodes’ – is with his older compatriot.  Górecki’s use of a motif derived from Tansman’s full name is his act of remembrance, an aural equivalent of a carved inscription.  What stands out in this programme, however, is the strength of individuality and musical vision of each of the three composers.

Tansman (1897-1986): Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1972)

It is a sign of the times that recordings are the saviour of neglected composers such as Alexandre Tansman.  Rarely is his music played in concert.  Yet in his lifetime, and particularly in the 1920s and 30s, it was performed by major orchestras and conductors across Europe and the USA.  He knew composers from Ravel to Roussel, Gershwin to Milhaud, Stravinsky to Schoenberg.  It was his misfortune, like that of Dutilleux and Ohana, to be elbowed off the stage by younger, avant-garde composers in the 1950s and 60s.  Yet Tansman continued composing until the end of his long life and his output is considerable, including seven operas, nine symphonies and numerous other orchestral and concertante pieces.

The title Stèle refers to tall memorial stones, examples of which Tansman may well have seen on his international travels.  The three movements constitute a modern take on the Baroque French ouverture – slow-fast-slow – yet their soundworld is far removed from Stravinsky’s precision engineering of 18th-century idioms.  There are, however, detectable allusions to Stravinsky’s music, especially that up to the 1940s.  Yet there is also a pervading exoticism in the opening Elegia, for example, that connects Tansman to a swathe of French composers, and French-influenced composers, of the first half of the 20th century.  This is music of passionate intensity and veiled atmosphere.

The central Studio ritmico speaks for itself, its idiom not a million miles away from some of today’s composers who are fascinated by glittering orchestration and pulsing momentum.  Its exhilaration is in part due to Tansman’s absorption of non-Western musical traditions that he encountered in the early 1930s.  The concluding Lamento is the most intimate movement, restrained and delicate.  Even here, Tansman’s entrancement with the exotic is in evidence, tempered by contrapuntal skeins of sound that objectify it in a way that Stravinsky would have recognised.

Stravinsky (1882-1971): Violin Concerto in D (1931)

When Stravinsky jotted down a chord for the violinist Samuel Dushkin, he was told by Dushkin that it was unplayable.  ‘Quel dommage’ (‘What a pity’) was the composer’s response.  When Dushkin, with whom Stravinsky worked frequently, tried the chord at home, he realised that it was feasible after all, and phoned Stravinsky to tell him.  Stravinsky then placed the chord at the start all four movements of his new Concerto and called it his ‘passport’ to the work.  The chord’s function, as a signal or announcement, bears a striking functional relationship with the opening of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which immediately preceded his work on the Concerto.

The Concerto has four movements, with two Arias flanked by a Toccata and Capriccio.  These titles, nominally at least, suggest connections with the Baroque suite, although even this is tenuous.  At this point in his career, Stravinsky seems to have settled into a relatively comfortable idiom, acknowledging the past without overly challenging it either structurally or stylistically.  The result in this Concerto is amiable, relaxed and, the unusual sequence of movement types notwithstanding, relatively conventional. The hallmarks of the Toccata include the opening idea that turns in on itself around D natural (often doubled at the third, as at its first appearance on two trumpets) and the nod toward the solo violin writing in The Soldier’s Tale.  This latter aspect proposes a link with the laid-back, insouciant character of the Soldier in Stravinsky’s morality tale, yet there is no lack of sophistication in this Toccata.

The dissonance quotient in Aria I is higher, giving the violinist’s song a bittersweet quality, offset by the animation in the central section.  This is itself punctuated by an especially resonant wind chord.  The much slower tempo of Aria II allows Stravinsky to explore Baroque ornamentation, not only in the solo part but notably also in the structural framing provided by flute, piccolo clarinet, trumpet and two trombones.  In bringing out the cantabile character of the violin, he brings an intimacy to an otherwise playful composition.  This joie-de-vivre is embodied by the Finale, whose witty interplay between violin and orchestra manages dexterously to combine the grotesque and the delicate.

Górecki (1933-2010): Symphony no.4 ‘Tansman Episodes’ (world premiere)

The success in the 1990s of Górecki’s Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), composed in 1976, was unprecedented in its reach and volume.  The music had a profound effect on audiences across the world that few had foreseen.  During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, when the Third Symphony remained largely out of sight, Górecki moved on, developing his music in different directions both stylistically and in the genres that he chose.  There were large-scale choral works (Beatus vir, Miserere), a piano trio and two string quartets, Marian hymns and folksongs.  And in the 1990s, while the Third Symphony was making waves, he composed two works that included references to circus music (Concerto-Cantata and Little Requiem).  There is, therefore, some distance between the Third and Fourth symphonies.

Undoubtedly the media circus and international invitations in the mid-1990s – enjoyable although the latter often were – disrupted Górecki’s routines and, in a way, caused him some anguish about his future path.  Hence the ten-year delay before releasing his Third String Quartet in 2005, and the fact that he held on to his Fourth Symphony, completed in 2006 in short score for piano, with indications of eventual orchestration.  Dates for its premieres came and went, and the composer died in 2010 before he was ready to share it.

The task of realising the manuscript for publication and performance fell to Górecki’s son Mikołaj, a composer in his own right.  Although much of the instrumentation was already written into the short score, elsewhere Mikołaj Górecki drew on his intimate knowledge of his father’s music and thought processes.  The use of three bass drums in the first movement, for example, comes from Górecki’s comments to his son when he played the Symphony to him on the piano in 2006.  There are also instrumental references to comparable moments in works from Beatus vir and the Harpsichord Concerto to Little Requiem and Concerto-Cantata.

The Symphony’s subtitle, ‘Tansman Episodes’, reveals something of its source of inspiration, although it is not quite what it appears.  The work was the result of several years of cajoling by Andrzej Wendland, who initiated a festival in Tansman’s name in the central Polish city of Łódź, where Tansman was born.  Wendland sowed the idea for a new work in Górecki’s mind and left it to him to come up with a piece as and when it suited the composer’s schedule and health.  Although Górecki had asked Wendland for a range of materials by and about Tansman, in the end he decided to write a work apparently uninfluenced by his compatriot, with one important exception.

In a number of previous works, Górecki had included the names of dedicatees in the fabric of the music (for example, Michael Vyner’s name in Good Night, 1990).  This he did by translating suitable letters into their musical equivalents.  In the Fourth Symphony, he derived the following musical cipher from Aleksander Tansman (Górecki used the Polish original of the forename): A-La (A)-E-S (E flat)-A-D-E-Re (D) … uT (C)-A-S (E flat)- Mi (E)-A.

There are four movements, played without a break and with internal subdivisions (usually indicated by changes in tempo or instrumentation) that sometimes run counter to the score’s indicated division.  This approach is developed in part from Górecki’s chamber music of the 1980s and 90s.  The scoring is for large orchestra (quadruple woodwind, three percussionists, organ) with obbligato piano.  The role of the piano is an overt echo of Little Requiem.

The first movement opens with the first five notes of the ‘Tansman’ theme, the remainder following in a series of fff repetitions.*  Its incantatory nature is reinforced by superimposing chords (based on A and E flat), this characteristic dissonance released rather than resolved by a skeletal exchange between piano and glockenspiel.  The movement ends with six emphatic A minor chords, gritted by G sharps and B flats.

As an example of the through-composed nature of the Symphony, the second movement continues the basic A minor tonality, with a chorale-like idea in the cellos and basses, ben sonore, that is interrupted several times by the gritty chords.  A second melodic theme, backed by a G major triad, is played by a pair of clarinets.  This turns out to be the theme from the final movement of Szymanowski’s Stabat mater, one of Górecki’s favourite pieces.  Its punctuation is gentler (a whole tone on piano, glockenspiel and tubular bells).  A third theme follows (second violins and violas).  The movement ends with a return of the opening ben sonore material, this time intercut by the whole-tone piano and bells, and a final recall of the clarinets, doubled by French horns.

The expressive atmosphere at this point has become introverted.  As in his chamber music, Górecki punctures the mood with something more upbeat, although not in this case really up-tempo.**  The third movement shows Górecki in earthy mode.  The core of the movement is unexpected and was part of Górecki’s original concept.  He abandons the orchestra and focuses on a small chamber ensemble with the piano at its heart.  It accompanies firstly a solo cello, to which subsequently is added a solo violin, with a piccolo joining in for the major part of the section.  This ‘trio’ is followed by the return, elaborated and extended, of the orchestral ‘scherzo’. It will have become evident that much of the melodic material, the ‘Tansman’ theme aside, has a strong folkloric identity or may be borrowed material.

The finale begins as a true Allegro, taking its cue from the opening notes of the ‘Tansman’ theme.  There is a typical acerbic answer (violin dissonances) as well as repeated triadic punctuation.***  The music is marked giocoso when it moves decisively into triple metre.  After a recapitulation of the opening, a slower solo for the piano brings back the ‘Tansman’ theme in new chording, the brass intone a brand new phrase which in its stentorian presentation seems particularly significant,**** and the orchestra picks up the ‘Tansman’ thread from the first movement.  The final moments are dominated by the reiterated, gritty A minor chords, but they do not have the final word.


When I wrote the programme note for the Górecki, I didn’t want to give too much of the game away for the audience as far as his references to other composers were concerned.  I felt it important to mention the Szymanowski quote, as that was something that was central to Górecki’s musical persona in other contexts too.  It would, however, have been a pity to spoil the surprise elsewhere.  But now that the piece has been performed and relayed by video, I feel happy to draw the reader’s attention to four other instances.

* As I recall, Górecki had a score of Boris Godounov, and there is an unmistakable Mussorgskian flavour to this opening, evoked partly by the pentatonic answer to the opening motif and partly by the repetitive nature of the material.

** There is, at least to my ears, a clear reference to Stravinsky in the third movement, especially to L’histoire du soldat.

*** The repeated chords begin as a self-referential allusion to Little Requiem.  But then Górecki morphs it into a quote from the music of John Adams.  Although Górecki did not like the term ‘minimalist’ applied to his music, he was interested in composers for whom at some stage it was appropriate.  He shared a publisher – Boosey & Hawkes – with Steve Reich and John Adams, and I think that at a particular moment he realised a specific connection and as a tongue-in-cheek tribute he proceeded to make it explicit.

**** This singular moment in the symphony, shortly before the end of the Finale, is both unexpected and unexplained.  It shares a pitch-class (E flat) with the Tansman theme as well as a three-note ‘turn’ with the Szymanowski.  But its presentation, and its origin, keep it separate and isolated.  It is a direct reference to the ‘Siegfried Theme’ from Wagner’s The Ring.  His son, Mikołaj, has said that in his last years his father became interested in Wagner, though why he did seems a mystery.  In this context, I must admit to being nonplussed by the reference and by its location expressively.  Perhaps time will reveal an underlying reason.  But, for the time being, I for one don’t quite know what to make of it.

© 2014 Adrian Thomas


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