Henri Tomasi – Main dates
I. A young marseillais from Corsica (1901-1920)
1901 – August 17. Henri Tomasi, the first son of Xavier Tomasi and Joséphine Vincensini, both from La Casinca, Corsica, is born in a working class neighbourhood of Marseille called ‘La Belle de Mai’, at 17, rue Bleu (now called Rue Clovis Hugues).
1905 – The family moves to Mazargues, where Henri’s father has a job as a postal worker. Himself an amateur flutist, Xavier sends his 5-year-old son to musical theory lessons.
1908 – Henri enters the Conservatoire de Musique de Marseille. He wins first prize for musical theory when he is ten and first prize for piano at thirteen. His father takes him to visit upper class families where, introduced as a musical wunderkind, he feels ‘humiliated to be on show like a trained animal.’
1913 – The family moves back to Marseille, 5, Rue de la Loubière, next to the Notre-Dame du Mont church. Whenever he can, the boy skips classes at the conservatory and goes swimming or reads secretly an anarchist comic-strip, ‘Les Pieds Nickelés’, in response to the strictness of a father who has brushed aside his dream of becoming a sailor. Every summer he travels to Corsica where he learns traditional Corsican songs from his grandmother.
1916 – First prize in harmony theory shared with Zino Francescatti [the celebrated violonist], who becomes his friend. As World War I has delayed his entry into the Conservatoire de Paris, he begins earning money in Marseille as a pianist. He plays in the most diverse settings imaginable: stylish, well-known establishments such as Hôtel Noailles or La Réserve restaurant on the cliff road; the brothels ‘Chez Aline’ and ‘Chez Adèle’; and the first movie houses, ‘Le Femina’ and ‘Le Saint-Ferréol.’ His gift for composition is obvious when he improvises on the keyboard. The earliest Charlie Chaplin films and ‘The Mysteries of New York’ awaken his interest in cinema.
Jean Molinetti, life-long best friend and confidant, recalls having heard him play one of his first pieces, ‘Au Bord du Djedi’, during this period.
II – Studies and early accomplishments in Paris (1921-1938)
1921 – Arrival in Paris and enrolment in the Harmony Class at the Conservatoire de la Rue de Madrid. He is a brilliant student – ‘He showed up with a fugue a week. He was indefatigable – an inveterate workaholic!’ his friend Maurice Franck would say. Although he has a scholarship from the municipality of Marseille and is under the patronage of the lawyer Maître Lévy-Oulman, he is obliged to continue ‘doing the job’, that is, playing piano in cafés, cinemas, and in the Palace Hotel Lutetia, in order to get by. His teachers were Charles Silver for Harmony, Georges Caussade for Counterpoint and Fugue, Paul Vidal for Composition, Vincent d’Indy and Philippe Gaubert for Conducting.
1925 – His first piece, a wind quintet called Variations on a Corsican Theme, wins the Prix Halphen.
1927 – He meets Odette Camp at the Opéra-Comique. The 18-year-old student at the Beaux-Arts, has come to discover Puccini’s La Bohème. This is also the year when Henri Tomasi receives the highest possible honours: a Grand Prix de Rome and a First Prize for Orchestra Conducting, awarded unanimously.
1928 – He begins his career as an orchestra conductor with the ‘Concerts du Journal’, and writes a piece for violin and piano, Paghiella, first performed by Zino Francescatti. – On October 30, in Paris, he weds Odette Camp, who is to become an accomplished artist. They settle down near Pigalle, at 24 Rue Victor Massé.
1929 – During their honeymoon trip in Corsica, he composes Cyrnos, a symphonic poem for orchestra and piano (or two pianos) dedicated to his wife. According to Florent Schmitt, ‘Cyrnos contains original ideas, inspiration and, lastly, a dash of lyricism, so rare amongst young people nowadays.’ – Hebrew Song, another piece for violin and piano, was played by Léon Zighera.
1931 – He conducts the ‘Radio-Colonial Orchestra’ founded by Julien Maigret during the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, thus becoming one of the first radio conductors and a pioneer of ‘radiophonic music’. His renown is secured by the public appreciation of Tam-tam, a symphonic poem for Choir, Solo and Orchestra.
1932 – Tomasi becomes a founding member of the ‘Triton Group of Contemporary Music’ along with Henry Barraud, Marcel Delannoy, Claude Delvincourt, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Jean Françaix, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud Francis Poulenc, Jean Rivier, Tibor Harsanyi, Arthur Honegger, Filip Lazar, Igor Markevitch, Bohuslav Martinu, Marcel Mihalovici, Gustavo Pittagula, Serge Prokofieff.
The Honorary Members include the 20th century’s most illustrious composers: Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Florent Schmitt, Igor Strawinski, Bela Bartok, Alfredo Casella, Georges Enesco, Manuel de Falla, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski. – He composes a new work that reinforces his renown, Vocero, a choreographed symphonic poem with a Corsican inspiration.
1933 – Lao Songs, for baritone or contralto and orchestra or piano.
1935 – Four Geishas Songs, for soprano and orchestra or piano. – His recording of Gluck’s Orphée featuring Alice Raveau is awarded the Grand Prix du Disque.
1936 – Increased activity as a conductor in Paris and the rest of France.
1937 – He writes his first work inspired by Provence, southeast France: a ballet called Les Santons. With its libretto by René Daumesnil, the piece, first performed at the Opéra de Paris on November 18, 1938, is a great success. In 1946 it is recorded on film for posterity.
1938 – He composes the Ballade for Saxophone Alto, first performed by Marcel Mule in 1939, and writes a String Trio (in C) dedicated to the Trio Pasquier. – His 1st musical score for the cinema is for the film Légions d’honneur (Grand Prix du Cinema Français)
III – Second World War – global and personal crisis (1939-1944)
1939 – In the midst of an existential crisis, he yearns to get away from it all. He boards – alone – a cargo ship destined for Dakar but the Second World War breaks out, and as soon as Henri arrives in Morocco he has to return to France. He is drafted on August 15 and joins the Chasseurs Alpins at the fort of Villefranche-sur-Mer where he is named Head of the Marching Band.
1940 – Discharged, he once again takes up his conductor’s baton at the Orchestre National, which has been expatriated to Marseille. His wife Odette leaves Paris to join him, but he is no more in love with her. However, the couple settles down on the cliff road, 151 Corniche. They have company with friends and artists such as the writer Roland Dorgelès, the painter Pierre Ambrogiani, musicians as Jean-Pierre Rampal, Etienne Baudo, Joseph Alviset, photographers as Albert Detaille, Henri and Gaston Manuel, and many others.
1941 – The Symphonie en ut (C major), conducted by Charles Munch in 1943, heralds a new period, both in his way of thinking and his musical compositions which reflect a new breadth. Here is the theme of the symphony expressed by Tomasi:‘The battle between the instinct of passion and mystical yearnings – the sufferings of humanity – the final affirmation of enduring joy.’
1942-1943 – His life is divided between Marseille and the Dominican Monastery of Sainte-Baume. It is there that he and a young woman fall in love, but as there is no hope of establishing a relationship, he spends more and more time in religious retreats and he even decides to become a monk; but his wife will know to turn him this project… – During his retreats he devote all his energy to creating the opera that would become his chef-d’oeuvre, Don Juan de Mañara (or Miguel Mañara), based on the fine mystical text by poet O.V. de L. Milosz.
1944 – With the birth of a son, Claude, there is a revival with his wife. Henri finishes composing his Requiem, dedicated ‘To the martyrs of the resistance movement and all those who have died for France.’ At the end of the war, the discovery of the concentration camps and Hiroshima leads the musician to reject all faith in God and religion, and after 1946 he sets his religious works aside.
IV – Parallel Careers throughout Europe (1945-1958)
1946 – Raoul Gainsbourg appoints him Directing Conductor of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, heralding a brilliant and intense new period of activity guiding orchestras throughout France, including the Orchestre National, the various radio orchestras, and Concerts Pasdeloup, Colonne and Lamoureux. His activity in the rest of Europe kicks off with a triumphant performance conducting a Debussy-Ravel program with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Switzerland. He’ll be invited back several years in a row (the Holland Festival).
1947 – First performance in Monte-Carlo of what will become one of his most famous works, Fanfares Liturgiques. Its four movements, Annunciation, Gospel, Apocalypse and Friday Procession, are part of the opera Don Juan de Mañara. – First season with the Festival de Vichy where he will conduct until 1955.
1948 –Henri Tomasi writes what will become his most popular composition, the Trumpet Concerto. It will be played and recorded by some of the finest musicians : Ludovic Vaillant, Maurice André, Pierre Thibaud, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Aubier, Sergei Nakariakov, Wolfgang Bauer, Philip Smith, Alison Balsom, David Guerrier, Alexandre Baty…
1949 – Saxophone concerto: first performed in Paris on March 2, 1950, by Marcel Mule. Tomasi himself conducts the Orchestre National.
1950 – Concerto pour Alto, first performed in Paris, at Concerts Colonne, by Robert Boulay;
1951 – Divertimento Corsica, is a new piece inspired by the ‘Island of Beauty’ – Based on the novel by Pierre Benoit, L’Atlantide, with libretto by Francis Didelot, is a choreographed operatic drama that has an exceptional destiny. It will be performed over eighty times in France (twenty at the Palais-Garnier in Paris), Germany and Belgium. Ethery Pagava, Ludmilla Tcherina, Claude Bessy, were some of the famous ballerinas playing the role of the ruthless character of Antinea.
1952 – In February a serious automobile accident resulting in a broken leg interrupts his conducting career for several months. – He writes his Noces de Cendres (The Ashes Wedding), an anti-war ballet, and is awarded the Grand Prix de la Musique Française by the SACEM.
1953 – The lyrical drama Sampiero Corso, his 3rd opera, with libretto by Raphaël Cuttoli, is first played in May 1956, in Bordeaux starring Régine Crespin. It is performed at the Holland Festival the same year. There are initial signs of deafness in the right ear, a malady that will deteriorate until his hearing is definitively lost in that ear. He declines an invitation to join the Legion of Honor, ‘until such time as a Conservatory is founded in Corsica.’
1955 – Triomphe de Jeanne, an oratorio, with text by Philippe Soupault. To mark the five hundred year anniversary of Joan of Arc’s rehabilitation, it opens in Rouen in 1956 featuring Rita Gorr and Ernest Blanc.
1956 – April 12 heralds the triumphant world premiere in Munich of Don Juan de Mañara.
– He writes the Clarinet concerto and the Trombone concerto.
1957 – Tomasi leaves conducting both in order to devote his energy entirely to composing and also because of various physical problems.
1958 – The overwhelming popularity of L’Atlantide, performed at l’Opéra de Paris, makes Tomasi the scapegoat of the ‘musical avant-garde’, particularly sectarian at the time. It is during this same period that misgivings about his former way of thinking and use of language lead him to a new phase of inspiration and creativity.
V – metamorphosis (1959-1971)
1959 – The Silence of the Sea, a lyrical drama in one act based on a text by Vercors, symbol of the French Resistance, marks the beginning of a phase where the very soul and history of the 20th century would be embodied in powerful opuses with a decidedly contemporary slant. This chamber opera, recorded at the ORTF by Georges Prêtre, will first be played in Germany at the Opera of East Berlin in 1966.
1960 – Grand Prix Musical awarded by the city of Paris.
1961 – Ulysse ou le beau Périple (Ulysses or the Beautiful Journey), ‘a literary and musical diversion’, is composed based on a text by Jean Giono.
1962 – Tomasi’s Violin concerto (Ulysses’ Journey), dedicated to and first performed by Dévy Erlih, was described as ‘a piece of fabulous, epic expressionism’ by the critic from Le Monde, Jacques Lonchampt. – He composes two pieces for trumpet and organ (or orchestra): Holy Week at Cuzco and Gregorian Variations on a Salve Regina.
1963 – The Goat of Monsieur Séguin, a lyrical tale based on A. Daudet’s narrative, was recorded starring the well-known actor Michel Galabru. – Two other similar lyrical tales with choir and soloist: Mr. Sub-Prefect in the Fields and The Death of the little Dauphin.
1965 – Flute concerto (of spring). The opening performance in Marseille, January 1966, features Jean-Pierre Rampal and the Orchestre des Concerts Classiques conducted by Serge Baudo. – His Éloge de la Folie (ère nucléaire), ‘In Praise of Madness (the nuclear era)’, based on a piece by Erasmus, is described as ‘the interplay of satire, lyricism and choreography’. This opus, the last he creates for Theater, echoes the testament that Tomasi will first write in 1966: ‘E finita la commedia! Peace, finally, on this stupid planet!’
1966 – He composes Retour à Tipasa, ‘a secular cantata for spoken voice, male chorus and orchestra’; text by Albert Camus. The opening performance won’t be held until after his death at the Abbaye de Saint-Victor in Marseille on April 25, 1985. The piece goes beyond the absurd to celebrate communion with the world and solidarity among men. ‘In the heart of the winter I finally realized that part of me was an invincible summer. Oh light! Oh vibrant light!’- His Highlands’ Ballad, a concerto for harp, will be recorded in 1985 by Marielle Nordmann and the Orchestre de Chambre des Solistes de Marseille under the wand of Reynald Giovaninetti.
1967 – Tomasi’s indignation with political and social injustice is transcribed into the core of his compositions, especially in his Symphonie du Tiers-Monde (Third World Symphony), based on a text by Aimé Césaire and dedicated to Hector Berlioz.
1968 – Chant pour le Vietnam (dedicated to Ho Chi Minh), a symphonic poem inspired by a text by Jean-Paul Sartre written to accompany a photo exhibition by Roger Pic. – Tomasi does not obtain the authorization to write musical adaptations of Ionesco’s The Chairs or The King is dying. – His Guitar concerto à la Mémoire du Poète Assassiné, F.G. Lorca, was performed by Alexandre Lagoya.
1969 – The Cello concerto was dedicated to and first performed by André Navarra. -Henri holds a series of interviews with his son, Claude, called ‘Autobiography with a tape recorder.’ On November 1 he is afflicted with pulmonary oedema. After ten months of convalescence, Henri Tomasi will finally be able to see the Vieux-Port de Marseille for the last time in September, 1970. With humour he writes: ‘Before the final breakdown, I must see the Mediterranean, my sea. Vive mare nostrum!’
1970 – ‘Back in exile’ in Paris, he adds the finishes touches to a Contrabass concerto and re-reads Hamlet with the idea of putting the plot to music ; but he only wrote a short piece for brass, To be or not to be. Time runs out, and he will only be able to finish the a cappella score of the twelfth of his 18 Chants Populaires de l’Île de Corse.
1971 – On the morning of January 13, he dies suddenly and peacefully in his apartment in Montmartre. In accordance with his last wishes, he is buried under the Mediterranean sky in Avignon. The simple ceremony, ‘without flowers or wreaths, nor civil or religious ceremony,’ is attended solely by family members and Jean Molinetti. –
2001 – To celebrate the centennial of his birth, his ashes were moved to the village of his forebears, at Penta di Casinca, in Corsica.