How many music lovers, even seasoned ones, have heard of Szymon Laks? Let alone of his music? Fate has been unkind to the Polish-French composer. Laks survived the hell of Auschwitz thanks to music: after he was taken captive, he was appointed conductor of the concentration camp’s orchestra.
Laks wrote a book about his time in the camp, after which he became known as the ‘kapellmeister of Auschwitz’. Extremely painful. Like his son André stated: it may be true his father survived the war thanks to music, it should never be forgotten he mainly lived for music as well.
Ruth Klüger, a famous author, Germanist and Holocaust survivor wrote about Auschwitz in her book ‘Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered’ : “The name itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I do not hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna.”
Szymon Laks did not hail from Auschwitz, he was born in 1901 in Warsaw. He left for Paris in 1926 to finish his musical studies there. He studied with Pierre Vidal and Henri Rabaud and soon became part of the “Paris School.” A group consisting mainly of young, Eastern European composers like Bohuslav Martinů and Marcel Mihalovici, with composers like Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc as central figures.
This French school with its formal structures and neoclassical lines was a great influence on Laks, especially in his earlier works, but his oeuvre was also strongly rooted in the Polish tradition. Polish music, both classical and folk music was his biggest inspiration.
In May 1941 Laks was arrested and interned in the French camp Pithiviers as a foreign Jew. On July 16th 1942 he was deported from there to Auschwitz. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau. After his liberation he returned to Paris.
Before the war Laks worked in cinemas as an accompanist of silent films, and also played the violin in cafés. After the war all he composed, with a few exceptions, was film music. In 1962 he started to compose again, but this period did not last very long.
In 1967 Laks stopped composing altogether. The Six-Day War played a role in that decision, as well as the huge antisemitic wave that followed it in Poland. He told his son that he felt composing music was no longer of any use at all. The events in the Middle-East and the antisemitic excesses in Poland meant to Laks that the existence of the Jewish people was under threat once again.
The exodus of the remaining Polish Jews in 1968 did not only embitter him, but also worsened his attacks of depression which had plagued him for a long time.
Szymon Laks was an assimilated Jew who always felt more Polish than Jewish. For this reason his pre-war works were not influenced by Jewish traditions, something which changed shortly after the war. In 1947 Laks composed his song cycle ‘Huit chants populaires juifs’ followed soon afterwards by stage music for ‘Dem sjmiets techter’ by Peretz Hirschbein.
The Canadian ARC Ensemble has been working on a series “Music in Exile” for several years now. After the first two volumes with music by Paul Ben-Haim and Jerzy Fitelberg (the latter was nominated for a Grammy) they have now dedicated volume three to the music of Szymon Laks.
This CD is worth buying for the Fourth String Quartet from 1962 alone. This rhythmical work shows strong jazz influences in a classicist form. Diverse styles are affectionately combined without actually merging. Almost like passersby in a park, greeting each other warmly, exchanging a few words, and then continuing their way. Fascinating.
How different from his “Polish” Third String Quartet from 1945 which the Canadian Ensemble recorded in the version for Piano Quintet from 1967! The Quintet has a less serious tone, parts of it are nothing more than pure entertainment. Polish folk melodies are combined with dancing passages, with every now and then time standing still, allowing you to wipe away a tear.
‘Passacaille’ from 1945 is in fact a vocalise, originally composed for voice (or cello) accompanied by piano. Here the piece is performed by a clarinet, a choice I am not entirely happy with because a clarinet simply sounds less warm than a human voice. Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, sees the work as Laks’s reaction on his concentration camp experiences, expressing them in his music. Can this be true? I would like to believe it.
Passacaille, in the version for cello and piano:
Almost all pieces get their CD premiere here, but other factors make this CD a real must have as well. The quality of this long neglected music is high, of course, as are the excellent performances by the musicians. Consider buying this CD as a late reparation to the composer, who was definitely more than “kapellmeister of Auschwitz.”
ARC Ensemble records works by Laks:
LEO SMIT ENSEMBLE
In case you want to hear more by Szymon Laks: several years ago the Leo Smit Ensemble recorded a CD with works by Laks (Future Classics 111), which includes the “Huit chants populaires juifs.” The Passacaille is included as well, in the version for flute and piano, masterly performed by Eleonore Pamijer and Marcel Worms.
Much recommended as well is the recent recording by the Polish Szymanowski Quartet (Avi 8553158). In addition to the Third String Quartet on Polish themes by Laks from 1945 it includes the String Quartet by Ravel and the Nocturne & Tarantella op. 28 from 1915 by Karol Szymanowski. It is fascinating to compare their performance of the “Polish Quartet” with the adaptation for Piano Quintet by the ARC Ensemble.