Alexander Tansman was born in Lodz on June 11th (not 12th) 1897. His father Moshe Tancman came from Pinsk and mother Anna Gurvich - from Vilnius. He studied in Lodz and Warsaw under the guidance of professors Wojciech Gawroński (a student of Moszkowski and Brahms), Naum Podkaminer (a student of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov), Karol Lüdschg and the Hungarian Sandor Va's. He was taught harmonics and counterpoint in Warsaw by Piotr Rytel, while Henryk Melcer-Szczawiński gave professional advice on his compositions. Tansman's early compositions can be divided into two parallel currents, the first of which was firmly embedded in Polish national tradition and under the strong influence of Chopin. The second current was avant-garde in character and went well beyond the parochial tastes of contemporary Polish musical circles. As early as 1916 the young composer was writing atonal and polytonal music, while in the Ist String Quartet he made use of dodecaphonic themes - his achievement is all the greater if one takes into account the fact that at the time he did not have the slightest idea that somewhere in the world there lived a certain Arnold Schönberg. Even today, eighty years later, his cycle of Eight Japanese Songs, which was composed to texts written by Remigiusz Kwiatkowski, still sounds fresh and new. In the first composer's competition held in Independent Poland, which ended in Warsaw on January 8th 1919, he was awarded the first three prizes.
In Poland, however, his compositions met with the same vitriolic criticism - coming from Warsaw circles - that had been directed against Karol Szymanowski. As a result, Tansman decided to leave for France. In Paris he presented his compositions to Maurice Ravel and received his wholehearted approval. Thereafter, Aleksander Tansman's international career progressed at an all but sensational pace. Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud induced him to join their Group "Le Six" as the "seventh", but he prized his independence above all else. Soon after his name began to be mentioned in connection with the composers of the "L'Ecole de Paris" - Bohuslav Martinu,Tibor Harsanyi, Marcel Mihalovici and Aleksandr Cherepnin. By the beginning of the twenties Tansman was, alongside Karol Szymanowski, the foremost representative of the "new school of composers" in Poland.
Tansman's rise to fame was meteoric. In America his pieces were conducted by Sergey Kussevitzky, Tulio Serafin, Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Mengelberg, while in Europe by Pierre Monteux, Jasha Horenstein, Herman Abendroth, Walter Straram, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Emil Młynarski and Grzegorz Fitelberg. His chamber pieces were played by the most famous string quartets, while his solo compositions were performed by pianists such as Walter Gieseking, José Iturbi, Henri Gil-Marchex, Jan Smeterlin, Henryk Sztompka, Mieczysław Horszowski and Zbigniew Drzewiecki. They were sung by Maria Freund, Jane Bathori and Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, and also became the show pieces of violinists Bronisław Huberman, József Szigeti, Hélčne Jourdan-Morhange and Irena Dubiska, and of violoncellists Pablo Casals, Gregory Piatigorsky, Maurice Maréchal, Enrico Mainardi and Kazimierz Wiłkomirski. He was a close friend of Chaplin and Gershwin.
A monograph dedicated to Tansman, entitled Aleksander Tansman - Polish Composer and written by Irving Schwerke, the famous American critic, was published in 1931 in both Paris and New York. Its hero was just 34 years old! The 1932-33 season, during which Tansman embarked on a round-the-world concert tour that started in Warsaw and took him across the United States, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, the Malay archipelago and Ceylon to Egypt, marked an important stage in his career. In Tokyo he was received by Emperor Hirohito, while in Bombay he was the private guest of Mahatma Gandhi. Everywhere he travelled, he was greeted as one of the greatest Polish artists of the time.
Tansman spent the war years in Hollywood, which then played the role of American "Weimar". It was Charlie Chaplin who helped Tansman and his family to escape from France, and rescued them during the Holocaust. Tansman shared the fate of many European émigrés - like that of Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók, and of writers Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Emil Ludwig. His friendship with Stravinsky was to result in a biographical book - one of the most valuable and credible works for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the brilliant composer's artistry and creative achievement.
Tansman was the first Polish artist nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture to Oscar for "original music", written for Gregory Ratoff's Paris Underground. In 1945 he was honoured with the Academy diploma for his exceptional contribution to the development of film culture and for his orchestrating artistry.
In 1946 he returned to Europe and once again settled in Paris. The time of his creative maturity was nearing. His compositions became part of the fixed concert hall repertoire. Tansman became a classic in both meanings of the word: literal and figurative. He was included amongst the most famous representatives of the neo-classical current in world music, alongside Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc and Casella. His outstanding contribution to world music was officially confirmed by many awards and distinctions, the Japanese Ji-ji Shimpo Medal, honorary membership of the Imperial Musical Academy in Tokyo, the Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge Medal in Washington, the Musical Award of the French Academy, the Prix Hector Berlioz in Paris, a chair in the Royal Belgian Academy, which he inherited from Dmitry Shostakovich, the Commandery of the French Order of Arts and Sciences, and the honorary membership Medal of the Association of Polish Composers.
In 1983 this list was supplemented by two Polish distinctions: the Gold Decoration of the Order of Merit and the Decoration of Merit for Polish Culture. In 1986 the Academy of Music in Lodz granted him a honoris causa doctorate. In a letter to Polish readers, written in June 1983, the composer stated: "It is obvious that I owe much to France, but anyone who has ever heard my compositions cannot have doubt that I have been, am and forever will be a Polish composer". Tansman's last piece, composed shortly before his death, in 1985, was a miniature composition for viola and piano entitled... Alla polacca. The composer died in Paris on November 15th 1986.