In French country gardens there grows a small flower that most people here know by its picturesque nickname, Le Désepoir du Peintre, Painter’s Despair. Few of us are familiar with its true name. Having been invited to sketch the curious personality of Henri Tomasi, I find that he is the person among all people who deserves to be compared to this small saxifrage which, through the variety, multiplicity and subtle detail of its forms and colors disheartens the professional artist.
The portrait maker is here confronted with an utterly disconcerting model, for the latter presents the observer with an appearance that is consistently changing and contradictory. As soon as a careful sketch of this protean artist has been drawn, it must be torn to bits because it offers an incomplete and false image of the full prism of his gifts. One would need to have all of the nuances of the rainbow at one’s disposal. (…) One cannot hope to classify Henri Tomasi in a precise category of creators. All that can be said without betraying him is that lyricism is the basis of his ideal, and that this lyricism has led him to discover a musical vocabulary of a potency, freedom and dynamism that are simply exceptional.
Tomasi undertakes his major works for theater at a period when the other composers of his generation wrestle laboriously with ideals of form, theory and system that are instinctively oriented towards austerity, ascetics and abstraction. Throughout the world, devoted as they are to pessimism and angst, the sons are now unconsciously doing penance for the sins of sensuality, gluttony of the ear and voluptuous hedonism committed by their fathers. They abide by an obscure law, the pendulum principle, whose automatic movement human morality has reliably reproduced over the centuries.
The author of Don Juan de Mañara openly rebels against these attitudes of contrition and penitence. The virtuosity of his writing could have allowed him to shine effortlessly in all of the exercises of grammatical acrobatics made fashionable by the epigones of two audacious theoreticians who were also composers of genius [Schoenberg and Berg] : This does not interest him. Observe the face of this slight Corsican whose determined lips and chin speak for his stubborn energy, and whose eyes, fixed like automobile headlights on men and things, ardently illuminate the future – this mask belongs to a fellow who knows what he wants and who has decided that his independence must be respected.
He has based this independence on a few solid and courageous principles. As a Mediterranean islander, his goal is to protect the sort of traditional ethnic resources that a Wagnerian philosopher such as Nietzsche admired in our Georges Bizet. He stakes his claim through color, light, fervor, emotion and overt passion. He declares his love for the most flexible and sensitive of the musical instruments: the human voice and, consequently, his taste for beautiful and expressive melodic arabesques. He doesn’t attempt to struggle against the laws of lyrical theater or to outsmart them – he accepts and respects them with honesty. What he wants is an orchestra that is opulent, lavish, passionate, vibrating with all possible nuances, throbbing with all of its pathetic howls, capable of feeling and expressing anything and everything. He refuses all of the dogmas and biases belonging to the ‘harmonic, polyphonic or instrumental professions’. Each of his lyrical opuses is written with its libretto firmly in mind and he is prepared to change styles whenever he deems it necessary. He doesn’t tackle theater with a symphonic composer’s mind. He doesn’t follow Stravinsky’s blasphemous proclamation that, “music can not and must not express anything for, as soon as it expresses something, it ceases to be music.” Au contraire, Tomasi is attached to proving that music can and must render everything in its own sublime language as long as it is not reduced to a stereotypical vocabulary. And he proved it, emphatically, through all of his works for theater.
It seems that in Corsica, Henri Tomasi has assimilated certain elements of the Arab civilization. He has an Oriental concept of instrumental color and tone along with the powerful rhythmic mesmerism; he uses a fascinating monotony in small musical phrases that are repeated with diabolical skill. But against this violently colorful tonal background he is capable of giving human voice an incredibly touching expression. He easily finds the lyrical expression of every imaginable passion, and his translation is highly communicative thanks to the sincerity of his emotion.
Henri Tomasi is a living example of sincerity, loyalty and courage in an era where these virtues are becoming extinct, replaced by the more lucrative opportunism fostered by snobbery. Nowadays, he is ‘recompensed’ by a series of brilliant successes. Let us rejoice in the fact that Destiny, generally so capricious, has been so unexpectedly clairvoyant.