Henri Tomasi

Tomasi, Henri

Henri Tomasi ( 17 August 1901 – 13 January 1971) was a French classical composer and conductor. He was noted for compositions such as In Praise of FollyNuclear Era and The Silence of the Sea.

Henri Tomasi was born in a working-class neighborhood of Marseille, France, on 17 August 1901. His father Xavier Tomasi and mother Josephine Vincensi were originally from La Casinca, Corsica. At the age of five, the family moved to Mazarques, France where Xavier Tomasi worked as a postal worker. There, he enrolled his son in music theory and piano lessons. At the age of seven, Tomasi entered the Conservatoire de Musique de Marseille. Pressured by his father, he played for upper-class families, where he felt “humiliated to be on show like a trained animal.”

In 1913, the family moved back to Marseille. Tomasi had dreams of becoming a sailor and skipped many of his music classes. During the summer, he stayed with his grandmother in Corsica and learned traditional Corsican songs. In 1916, he won first prize in harmony, along with his friend Zino Francescatti, the celebrated violinist. World War I delayed his entrance into the Paris Conservatoire, so he played piano in Marseille to earn money. He performed in diverse venues such as upscale hotelsrestaurantsbrothels, and movie houses. His gift for composition was developed during this time as he excelled in improvisation at the keyboard. The early Charlie Chaplin films also intrigued him and influenced his works.[1]

In 1921, he commenced his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris with a scholarship from the municipality of Marseille and a stipend from a lawyer, Maitre Levy Oulman. He still performed at cafes and in the cinemas to earn money. His friend Maurice Franck described Tomasi as a hard worker: “He showed up with a fugue a week, he was indefatigable – an inveterate workaholic.”[2] In 1925, his first piece, a wind quintet called ‘Variations sur un Theme Corse’, won the Prix Halphen. His teachers at the Paris Conservatoire included GaubertVincent d’IndyGeorges Caussade, and Paul Vidal. In 1927, he won the second Grand Prix de Rome for his cantata, ‘Coriolan’, and a First Prize for Orchestral Conducting, which were both awarded unanimously. That same year, he met his future wife, Odette Camp, at the Opéra-Comique. They wed in 1929. Tomasi began his career as a conductor for Concerts du Journal.

From 1930 to 1935 Tomasi served as the music director of the Radio Colonial Orchestra in French Indochina, which was founded by Julien Maigret during the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris. Tomasi became one of the first radio conductors and a pioneer of “radiophonic” music. During the 1930s he was one of the founders of a contemporary music group in Paris entitled Triton along with ProkofievMilhaudHonegger, and Poulenc. He spent equal time composing and conducting. He was one of the conductors for studio broadcasts of the Orchestre Radio Symphonique de la Radiodiffusion Francaise. He made his most memorable recording in 1936 with the extraordinary French mezzo-soprano Alice Raveau in Gluck‘s Orfeo, which was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque. In 1939 Tomasi was drafted into the French Army and was named marching-band conductor at the Villefranche sur Mer fort.

In 1940 he was discharged and took up the baton at the Orchestre national de la Radiodiffusion française. As a composer, his orchestral music is important, but above all he was attracted to the theater. In the realm of instrumental music, he preferred composing for wind instruments. He composed concerti for fluteoboeclarinetsaxophonebassoontrumpethorn, and trombone. He also composed concerti for violin and viola. In 1944, his son Claude was born and Tomasi started composing a Requiem dedicated to “the martyrs of the resistance movement and all those who have died for France.”[3] Tomasi was disillusioned by the events of World War II and subsequently rejected all faith in God. His Requiem was set aside and was not discovered again and recorded until 1996. In 1946, Tomasi assumed the post of conductor of the Opera de Monte Carlo. He became extremely sought-after as a guest conductor all over Europe. In 1948, he wrote what would become his most popular composition, the Concerto for Trumpet. In 1949 the Concerto for Saxophone was performed by Marcel Mule.

An hour-long documentary film about the composer produced by Jacques Sapiega was made in 2001.

In 1956 he composed the Concerto for Clarinet and the Concerto for Trombone. This same year brought the long-awaited world premiere of his opera Don Juan de Mañara based on a text by poet O. V. de L. Milosc. This opera, “L’Atlantide”, and the comic opera “Le Testament di Pere Gaucher” collectively established his reputation as an opera composer.

In May 1956 at Bordeaux, his opera Sampiero Corso was premiered, with the Australian tenor Kenneth Neate in the title role. It was repeated at the Holland Festival in June.[4]

In 1957, Tomasi stopped conducting because of physical problems, including advancing deafness in his right ear. In 1966 Jean-Pierre Rampal played his Concerto for Flute with the Orchestre des Concerts Classiques in Marseille. His last piece for the theater, “In Praise of Madness (the nuclear era)”, is a cross between opera and ballet and contains references to Nazism and napalm. It reflects Tomasi’s postwar disillusionment with mankind. During his last period of composition he was motivated by political events and wrote pieces such as the Third World Symphony and Chant pour le Vietnam. In 1969, he held a series of interviews with his son, Claude, called “Autobiography with a Tape Recorder.” (Tomasi assoc.) As his health deteriorated, he began working on an operatic version of Hamlet. On 13 January 1971 he died peacefully in his apartment in Montmartre, Paris. He was buried in his wife’s family tomb in Avignon. Later, to celebrate the centennial of his birth, his ashes were moved to the village of his ancestors in Penta di CasincaCorsica.


Albums Featuring this Artist