Rediscovering The Music Of Polish Composer Szymon Laks

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Szymon Laks, circa 1965. (Courtesy)
Szymon Laks, circa 1965. (Courtesy)

Polish composer Szymon Laks was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II, and became a conductor for the Auschwitz orchestra.

After the war, Laks continued to compose, but his music never received widespread recognition. He was more well-known for his concentration camp memoir "Music of Another World."

Now, the ARC Ensemble in Canada has released "Music in Exile Volume 3: Chamber Works by Szymon Laks." Artistic director Simon Wynberg joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the album.

Interview Highlights

On Laks' emotional distance from music

"I think we all like to believe that music has this kind of transformative power, that it can give something other than something superficial like entertainment, that it kind of opens the soul and it reveals things that otherwise we wouldn't hear. In the case of Laks, he just refused to believe that. His evidence — and he stuck by this his entire life — was that it had no meaning, really, that it was part of the madness of Auschwitz."

On the importance of context in musicology

"I think we like to imagine that music has this power, and I think when you think of music outside of horrific circumstances — like those of Auschwitz — then you can imagine those things, but as soon as you put music into the context of Auschwitz, it becomes something very, very different. ... I think having music in the context of something so horrific, it makes a mockery of music, in a sense."

On interpreting Laks' works as Holocaust music

"What you're doing is, in the trade, known as 'backshadowing.' You're putting what you know about the context of his life, and putting it onto the music. If you heard that without any knowledge of who the composer was or what he had been through, you would say, 'What a delightful, charming, romantic, wistful piece.' But because you know something about his background, the temptation is to impose that on what you're hearing."

On Laks' 1945 "Passacaille" and its unique tone

"That's played on the clarinet, but it was originally written as a vocalise, so the singer would just sing to the syllable 'ah,' so there were no words, and to me that is the indication, part of the indication, as well as the language of the piece itself, that he was trying to put across some kind of reaction to his experience in the war. But that's the only piece, really, that I get that feeling, and it was written right at the end of the war. It was written just after he arrived back in Paris in May 1945."

On Laks surviving the Holocaust and his legacy

"I think for students of the Holocaust and people who have studied it, the account, 'Music of Another World' — in which he explores those years in which he was in Auschwitz, and then afterwards in Dachau in Kaufering XI, which was a subcamp — his description of what went on there is so fascinating and detailed that in a way it supplanted any attention that might have been paid to the music. The other thing, of course, is that he survived the war. I mean, he died in the '80s, and in a sense, he doesn't really qualify for Holocaust status because he didn't die. People are much more interested in the composers who were actually killed in Auschwitz because there's a kind of compensatory quality that the works have when they're played after the composer's death. He never qualified in a sense because he lived for many years after the war."

This segment aired on August 3, 2017.



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