Szymon Laks was a composer, conductor, author and translator. Born on November 1st, 1901, in Warsaw, to a family of assimilated Jews. For over two years, he was incarcerated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where he was the conductor of the camp’s orchestra. He died on 11th of December 1983.
He initially studied maths at the University of Stefan Batory in Vilnius (1919-21). In 1921, he changed his mind and enrolled at Warsaw Conservatory to study composition and counterpoint. He simultaneously attended lectures of maths and philosophy at Warsaw University. He eked out a living by playing piano for silent films, playing the violin in cafés and restaurants and giving music lessons. His son, Andre Laks recalls that his father even ‘toured the world as a fiddler on a cruise liner’.
In 1926 he went off to Paris, where he completed his compositional studies and developed as a conductor at the Conservatoire National de Musique. From 1927 he was associated with the Society of Young Polish Musicians in Paris.
He passed the beginning of the war in Paris. In 1941 he was arrested by the Germans and imprisoned in the Pithivier camp near Orlean as a ‘foreign Jew’. From there, in 1942 he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. For the onset he worked there as a copyist and member of camp’s orchestra but soon became its conductor – a post which kept him alive. Primo Levi, the author of the book If This Is a Man, a shocking summary of Auschwitz experience would later say that Szymon Laks was one of the ‘chosen’, which he opposed to the ‘condemned’ – meaning prisoners who were killed in the gas chambers or died from exhaustion and hunger. From 1944, up until the end of war he remained at Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
He described his experiences of wartime and imprisonment in various camps in the book Musiques d’un autre monde (Music From Another World, published 1948), which earned him a prize for the best testimony of contemporary historical events. Jeux Auschwitziens (Auschwitz Games, from 1979) is his other celebrated novel concerning the topic of Shoah.
A certain aloofness, which can be found in both books, is a result of the need to adopt a way which enables one to testify – wrote Andre Laks in his essay ’About My Father – Szymon Laks’ – The relentless need to give testimony is strongly related to the impossibility of testifying. Poise, and even irony, are the strategies he used to deal with his tragic memories.
His music composed after World War II and music from Music From Another World have nothing in common – wrote Andre Laks.
The topic of the genocide reoccurs is pieces like: Huit chants populaires juif (8 Popular Jewish Songs composed in 1847), Funeral or Elegy of Jewish Towns, based on the celebrated poem by Antoni Słonimski. Music for theatrical play Les filles du forgeron (Smith’s Daughter) by Perec Hirschbein is another of this kind.
After Paris’ liberation he became a French citizen. He didn’t compose much, concentrating mostly on commercial music. Health and financial issues made him artistically silent throughout the 1950s (apart from the sole Poem for violin and orchestra from 1954).
In 1960s, inspired by his cooperation with the singer Halina Szymulska, he undertook his composing work again, focusing mostly on vocal lyrics. In 1966 he wrote his only opera L'hirondelle inattendue (The Unexpected Swallow), one-act comic opera referring to the traditions of vaudeville.
In 1967, when the Six Day War broke out, he stopped working again.
He told me that there is no reason to write music any more – his son said – To him, this war meant that the Jewish nation was in danger again. Aggression made the music quiesce.
From 1972 he worked only as a journalist and author.
Instead of notes he took care of letters – writes Andre Laks – My father had a passion not only for music but also for foreign languages and for language itself. I remember that he was subscribed to a very specialist magazine Vie et Language, which he read to me from time to time. He was interested in the problems of translation and politics – especially everything that directly or indirectly concerned the state of Israel.
Zofia Helman, a musicologist and connoisseur of Polish music classified his output as neo-classicist. Szymon Laks was inspired by genres and forms of baroque and classicism (amongst others, symphony, sonata and concert forms). The construction of his works is simple and clear. He often uses the counterpoint and harmonic means typical of neoclassicism. In his songs, he merges different traditions: Polish songs, French chanson, and Jewish folklore, and this is what makes them so original.
Szymon Laks was awarded for his compositions numerous times. In 1928 he received an honourable mention for his jazz fantasy entitled Blues symphonique (Symphonic Blues) for the orchestra and saxophone. In 1949 he was awarded for a piano ballad, Hommage à Chopin. His other awarded works are a song Polały się łzy me with lyrics by Adam Mickiewicz and Concerto da camera, which earned him first prize at the International Compositions Contest in Divonne-les-Bains.
Source: www.polmic.pl, January 2006, update: Andre Laks, O moim ojcu Szymonie Laksie, 2014 Filip Lech, translated by W.O. March 2014.