Henri Tomasi was born in Marseille, France, on August 17, 1901, and died on January 13, 1971. He composed his Concerto for Alto Saxophone as an exam piece for the Paris Conservatoire in 1949. The first public performance was given by soloist Marcel Mule, its dedicatee, with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF (Radio France) under the composer’s direction on March 2, 1950. The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances take place November 24-25, Earl Lee conducting.
The score for the concerto calls for solo alto saxophone in E-flat with and orchestra of 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, bass drum), harp, and string quintet (first and second violins, viola, cello, and double bass). The concerto is about 19 minutes long.
The first saxophone (in the bass range) was invented around 1840 in Brussels by Adolphe Sax, whose family was a maker of woodwind instruments. The metal-bodied, single-reed instrument was developed through the rest of the 19th century, primarily in French-speaking regions. Although it has never been fully integrated into the classical orchestra, ensemble music with sax began to emerge in the 19th century and was used strikingly in important orchestral works in the early 20th. Ravel, with his Boléro and his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both in the 1920s), and Rachmaninoff in his Symphonic Dances (1943) wonderfully demonstrated its use as a unique orchestral color.
By the 1920s, the saxophone had been wholeheartedly embraced by jazz ensembles that evolved from theater orchestras, marching bands, and dance groups. Its virtuosic capabilities in a variety of popular styles were established by such players as Rudy Wiedoeft and the early jazz greats Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges. Saxophones were important to solidify the jazz bona fides in crossover orchestral works by George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Darius Milhaud (in his The Creation of the World).
As a solo instrument in the classical realm, the saxophone was promoted strongly by the Boston-based saxophonist Elise Hall, who commissioned works from leading composers including Claude Debussy, André Caplet, and Vincent d’Indy. Her example of developing repertoire for the instrument was followed by the German-born Sigurd Raschèr in the U.S. and the French performer Marcel Mule (1901-2001). Mule was responsible for developing entire generations of classical saxophonists as the instructor for the newly re-established course at the Paris Conservatoire beginning in 1944. Both Mule and Raschèr founded saxophone quartets—typically soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, with variations—to perform newly commissioned and arranged chamber music. Raschèr, incidentally, made his U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in October 1939, playing works by Debussy and Jacques Ibert. In January-February 1958, Marcel Mule played a stretch of concerts with the BSO under Charles Munch at Symphony Hall and on tour to Carnegie Hall and Washington, D.C., performing Ibert’s Concertino as well as a Ballade for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (1938), the first of two pieces written for him by the French composer Henri Tomasi.
Tomasi was Mule’s exact contemporary, and like many French composers of the era, among them Milhaud, Jean Françaix, and Jacques Ibert, he embraced a style that warmed to popular and jazz elements. He attended the conservatory in his hometown of Marseille from a young age and was promenaded, Mozart-like, in the homes of the wealthy. A brilliant pianist, he absorbed a variety of performance styles playing professionally as a teenager. The city of Marseille presented him with a scholarship for further study at the Paris Conservatoire. He won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1927. Along with composing, he also became an accomplished conductor. Charles Munch—later the BSO’s music director—began championing his music in the 1940s, premiering his Symphony in C.
Tomasi was especially drawn to the theater and to dramatic musical narratives. He was influenced by what he heard of music from the region of French Indochina, Brazil (like his older contemporary Milhaud), and his parents’ birthplace of Corsica, though his use of these elements is typically subsumed into a more abstract style. He wrote numerous operas, music dramas, and ballets. The lyric drama Miguel Mañara, based on the O.V. de Milosz play, is considered among his finest works. Its theme of a Don Juan-like character’s renunciation of a debauched life resonated with Tomasi, who increasingly spent time at a Dominican monastery and other retreats. Another major work is his opera L’Atlantide, a mainstream success produced at the Paris Opera in 1959.
Tomasi tended generally toward picturesque inspiration in his concert works. He was sought after for concertos, writing solo/ensemble works for violin, cello, double bass, piano, trombone, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and guitar. His conservative style was somewhat eclipsed by post-World War II modernism, but his music is imaginative, attractive, and individual, and has staying power. Even late in his life, he was determined to broaden his expressive approach. Many of his works of the 1960s reveal serious concern with social issues, including a work memorializing the anti-Fascist poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and an anti-war symphonic poem, Chant pour le Viet-Nam, based on a text by Sartre.
Tomasi wrote his Concerto for Alto Saxophone in E-flat and Orchestra as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire but dedicated it to Marcel Mule, who gave its first performance in March 1950 with the composer conducting. Tomasi’s harmonic and melodic ideas are influenced by the sophisticated lushness of mid-century popular music, verging on jazz but not jazz. The concerto is in two movements. There’s a touch of Ellingtonian melancholy in the hazy opening section, a mood that would still obtain had the soloist been cello or violin. Moving out of this realm, the second section is quick and march-like, the saxophone showing its athletic flexibility and range while remaining primarily lyrical. The orchestration recalls Ravel’s La Valse exuberance, with full brash and cymbal-laden percussion. A substantial cadenza for the solo sax, accompanied subtly by harp, leads to the surging finale of the first movement, which can be as much as twice as long as the second. Syncopation and mixed meters create unpredictability without slowing the brisk progress of the second movement, marked “Gyration,” describing the quick, circling motifs. The orchestra keeps up the quick foundation even as the saxophone again waxes lyrical. A full-orchestra outburst reintroduces the broad melody we heard briefly in the opening of the first movement, now more majestic than bittersweet, in a crescendo to the finish.
Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.