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.
Table of contents: | Paris School | Shoah | Back To Paris | Awards and Distinctions | Significant compositions | Film Music | Literary Works |
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.
Back To Paris
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.
Awards and Distinctions
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.
- Farys, symphonic poem (1924)
- Scherzo, for orchestra (1925)
- Little Suite for string quartet (1926)
- Sonatina for piano (1927)
- String Quartet no 1 (1928)
- Blues symphonique, jazz fantasy for orchestra and saxophone (1928)
- Quintet for woodwinds (1929)
- Concerto Sonata for violin and piano (1929)
- String Quartet no 2 (1932)
- Sonate pour violoncelle et piano (1932)
- Trois pièces de concert for cello and piano (1933)
- Polish Suite [version I] for violin and piano (1935)
- Sinfonietta for string orchestra (1936)
- Polish Suite [version II] for orchestra (1936)
- Five songs to poeams by Julian Tuwim for voice and piano(no 1, 2, 3) (1936-38)
- L'enfant qui avait volé une montre for voice and piano (1938)
- La chanson de l'héritier for voice and piano (before 1939)
- Polskie echa (Polish Echoes), 8 songs for men or mixed choir (1939)
- Z mroków i świtów (From darkness and dawns), 20 popular songs for voice and piano (1939-46)
- Aniołowe lica (Angels’s Faces) voice and piano (ok. 1940)
- Ballada starofrancuska (Old French Ballad) for the voice and piano (ok. 1940)
- Dyzio marzyciel (Dyzio the Dreamer) for the voice and piano (ok. 1940)
- Three Warsaw’s Polonaises [version I] for chamber orchestra (ok. 1944)
- String Quartet no 3 based on Polish folklore themes (1945)
- Z naszych łanów (From Our Meadows), songs and folklore dances (1945)
- Passacaille (Vocalise) [Version I] for cello and piano (1946)
- Passacaille (Vocalise) [Version II] for voice and orchestra (1946)
- Kolęda śląska (Silesian Carol) for voice and piano (1946)
- Huit chantes populaires juifs for voice and piano (1947)
- Sonate brève for harpsichord (1947)
- Ballad "Hommage à Chopin" for piano (1949)
- Bezdomna (Homeless) for voice and piano (1949)
- Polały się łzy me for voice and piano (1949)
- O Grzesiu kłamczuchu (About Gregor The Liar), spoken word for voice and piano (1949)
- Prélude for piano (approx. 1950)
- Od strzechy do strzechy (From One Roof to Another), folk melodies for little ensemble (1950)
- Poem for violin and orchestra (1954)
- Trois poèmes chantés for voice and piano (1960)
- Petite suite légère for orchestra (1960)
- Elegia żydowskich miasteczek (Elegy of Jewish Towns) for voice and piano (1961)
- La rue for voice and piano (1961)
- 5 songs for Julian Tuwim’s poems for voice and piano (no 4, 5) (1961-62)
- String Quartet no 4 (1962)
- Prośba o piosenkę (A Request for a Song) for voice and piano (1962)
- Pogrzeb (The Funeral) for voice and piano (1962)
- Deszcz (The Rain) for voice and piano (1962)
- String Quartet no 5 (1963)
- Staruszkowie (Old men) for voice and piano (1963)
- Portrait de l'oiseau-qui-n'existe-pas for voice and piano (1964)
- Concerto da camera for piano, 9 brass instruments and drums (1964)
- Symphony for string orchestra (1964)
- Dialog (Dialogue) for two cellos (1964)
- Concertino for 3 woodwinds (1965)
- Suite dans le goût ancien for piano(1966)
- Divertimento [version I] for flute, violin, cello and piano (1966)
- Divertimento [version II] for violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano (1966)
- L'hirondelle inattendue (Unexpected Swallow), a comic opera (1966)
- Suita concertante for trombone and piano (1967)
- Piano Quintet (1967)
- 5 songs for Tadeusz Śliwiak’s poems for voice and piano (1967)
- Chorale for 4 trombones (1973)
- Pocałunki (Kisses) for voice and piano (1974)
- Sabra (1933)
- Przebudzenie (Awekening) (1934)
- 1948: Musiques d’un autre monde, with René Coudy. Mercure de France, 1948; republished under the name Mélodies d'Auschwitz, Le Cerf, 1991. Pierre Vidal Naquet,
- 1976: Episodes, épigrammes, épîtres
- 1977: Polonismes, polémiques, politiques
- 1978: Mot et contre-mot
- 1979: Jeux Auschwitziens
- 1980: Souillure de sainteté
- 1981: Journal des journées blanches
- 1982: Le tarif réduit coûte plus cher
- 1983: Ma guerre pour la paix
- 1984: La culture avec guillemets et sans
Source: www.polmic.pl, January 2006, update: Andre Laks, O moim ojcu Szymonie Laksie, 2014 Filip Lech, translated by W.O. March 2014.