By Brian Wise
Crouched in a bunkbed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Szymon Laks could hear a rhythmic thumping in the distance. He couldn’t identify the sound, but after days of beatings, drills, and dehydration, it somehow rocked him to sleep. The next day he awoke to see prisoners setting up music stands, and he realized that the thumping came from a bass drum. The concentration camp had an orchestra, and Laks managed to become a member, and eventually, its music director.
Laks recounted this experience in Music of Another World, his remarkable 1948 memoir that captured the surreal juxtaposition of beauty and horror in the concentration camp. The Warsaw-born Jewish musician and composer was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 after he was arrested in France, where he had settled years earlier after studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Because of his relatively elevated status as music director in Auschwitz, Laks managed to survive. A few months after he was transferred to Dachau, the US Army liberated the camp and he returned to Paris. He died there in 1983 at the age of 82.
Laks returned to composing after the war, and supplemented his work as an author, journalist, and translator. But widespread recognition never came and performances were sporadic. The composer’s son, André Laks, says in an e-mail to Strings that his father didn’t identify with new developments in serialism or other complex methods. “I think that he wanted to assume the heritage of Ravel on the one hand, and Szymanowski on the other hand,” he writes. “What is clear is that he believed in the musical force of classical forms up to the end.”
New attention is being paid to Laks’ unsung contributions. In July, the Toronto-based ARC Ensemble released Chamber Works by Szymon Laks, the third installment in its Music in Exile series on Chandos, devoted to composers who were suppressed or displaced during World War II. It contains works—including the String Quartet No. 4 and a well-wrought Quintet—that blend strains of Polish folk music, jazz, and French chanson with classical forms.
“He was an incredible craftsman,” says Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, who first encountered Laks’ music 15 years ago. “Everything is so neatly done and there are no extra notes. When he’s finished with something, he rules a line and that’s it. There’s never a sense that you’re hearing too much. That kind of craftsmanship was coupled with the fact that, apparently, he was a very witty man.”
By the time Boosey & Hawkes published most of Laks’ catalog in 2006, the postwar battles had long faded. This past July, the Messages Quartet, from Warsaw, released an album of Laks’ String Quartets Nos. 3, 4, and 5 on the DUX label. And in October, the Dover String Quartet issued Voices of Defiance on Cedille, featuring Laks’ String Quartet No. 3, along with contemporaneous pieces by Shostakovich and Viktor Ullmann.
Composed in 1945, the ebullient Third Quartet, “On Popular Polish Themes” is a particular standout in the Laks catalog, with imaginative instrumental colors and strong dramatic arcs. “It carries a lot of emotional damage but is also a very grateful and positive piece,” says Camden Shaw, cellist of the Dover Quartet. “It’s really special and was an incredible find.”
Shaw says the quartet’s Polish folk melodies suggest a kind of “nostalgic release” after World War II and years of self-imposed exile in Paris. “He had been holding it in for so long and was thirsty for memories of his home music that he could not hear under such horrible circumstances,” he says. “Finally, this comes pouring out as a celebration of making it back home.” With the sheet music printed in the composer’s hand, “there’s an emotional sense you get from his handwriting in certain passages.”
In 1967, Laks arranged the Third Quartet for piano quintet, which the ARC Ensemble recorded and performed in Warsaw and Poznań, Poland. “The response there was extraordinary,” says Wynberg. “It clearly touched some kind of nerve.” But Laks’ relationship to his homeland was not always so harmonious. In the 1950s, his attempts to get Music of Another World, his memoir, printed in Poland met resistance from government officials. They deemed it “unfit for publication” because of its “overly favorable” portrayal of the Nazis, which Laks said “surprised and saddened me very much.”
Members of the ARC Ensemble passed around a copy of the memoir as they prepared for the recording. Violist Stephen Dann was especially struck by a passage describing Laks’ orchestration technique. The Auschwitz ensemble was tasked with playing German marches to accompany prisoners as they worked. At times a key part would be missing from the music due to grim circumstances: a musician had become sick, committed suicide, or was sent to the gas chambers. So Laks wrote out the main themes in smaller print in the other parts, allowing them to be spontaneously reassigned and for the music to sound complete.
“He was such a skilled musician, and that’s how he apparently survived,” says Dann. (Laks’ self-preservation wasn’t as evident at his first audition, however, which included a movement from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.) Whatever the validity of criticisms that Laks’ memoir was a bit too emotionally detached, the topic of genocide appears in several postwar songs, including the haunting Huit chants populaires juif (8 Popular Jewish Songs) and the Elégie pour les villages juifs (Elegy for Jewish Towns), based on a poem by Antoni Slonimski.
“Everything is so neatly done and there are no extra notes. When [Laks] finished with something, he rules a line and that’s it. There’s never a sense that you’re hearing too much.”
The ARC Ensemble’s Music in Exile project began ten years ago as a series of concert programs, devoted largely to works that were suppressed in the Nazis’ effort to “cleanse” German culture of all so-called degenerate and subversive art. At least 300 composers were banned under the Third Reich, many of them Jewish. Some, including Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, continued their careers while living in exile. Others gave up composing altogether, while another group—including Ullmann, Hans Krasa, and Erwin Schulhoff—perished in the concentration camps.
“There are so many composers who came to North America or went back to Europe and just slipped under the radar,” says Wynberg. “A lot of times, their music was fairly traditional and didn’t fit with the new serial ideas and the reaction to the conservatism of Nazi-favored music.” The Music in Exile recordings have previously featured Paul Ben-Haim, a German composer of Klezmer-flavored works who in 1933 immigrated to Palestine, and Jerzy Fitelberg, a talented Polish-Jewish composer who fled to America in 1940. The latter album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2016.
But despite this and critical accolades, concert presenters can be wary of an unknown name attached to a weighty historical context, says Wynberg. Partly for this reason, the ARC Ensemble’s album covers avoid barbed wires and other Holocaust imagery. “We tried to steer well away that this is related to the Holocaust,” says Wynberg. “Obviously it has clear connections to it. But the music of exiles speaks not immediately
to the Holocaust.”
String players may discover other Laks works poised for a revival, among them the 1936 Sinfonietta for strings, the Poème for Violin and Orchestra (1954), and a well-wrought Vocalise for Cello and Piano (1946). The members of the ARC Ensemble say they are passing Laks’ music on to their students at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where they teach. But Wynberg cautions that a composer’s biography alone cannot frame artistic decisions.
“I’ve had experiences where people have sent me music of relatives who are murdered or who were ignored after they’d immigrated,” he says. “There’s kind of an expectation that you will look more seriously at the music because of the lives that they lived or because they were ignored. You have to say that, because somebody had an awful life, it doesn’t give them a free ride when it comes to playing their music. The music has to exist on its own terms.”