Simon Laks was a member the group of Polish composers who lived in Paris in the interwar years and joined to form the Association des jeunes musiciens polonais (association of young Polish musicians). Though his talent was praised by early critics in Paris, he never achieved international fame. After the war, in which his musical works were partly destroyed, he composed little, keeping to his musical style which had developed under the influence of pre-war musical neo-classicism and thus abandoning the contemporary musical avant-garde. Though he still lived in the centre of the musical world, he no longer responded to current developments as he had done before. His style remained independent and was inspired by the École de Paris (School of Paris) with its respect for musical craftsmanship and the autonomy of the musicians. The individual character of his music can be seen most clearly in the lyrical style of his vocal compositions which form a substantial part of his works.
Simon Laks was born in Warsaw. After graduating from the Tadeusz Czacki grammar school, he spent two years studying mathematics in Vilnius and Warsaw. In 1921, he entered the Warsaw conservatoire where he studied harmony under Piotr Rytel and counterpoint under Roman Statkowski. His first piece of work, the symphonic poem Farys which has since been lost, was performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in 1924. He left Poland in 1926 and spent several months in Vienna before he moved to Paris where, from 1927-29, he continued his study of music at the Conservatoire National under Pierre Vidal (composition) and Henri Rabaud (conducting). He was one of the first composers to become a member of the Association des jeunes musiciens polonais, founded in Paris in 1926, taking over administrative work for the group. In 1928, he received an award for his Blues symphonique (now lost) at the association’s composition competition. As shown in contemporary concert programmes, many of Laks’s works were performed in Paris, including his Brass Quintet, his String Quartet No.2 (both have been lost) and his Sonata for Cello and Piano, the premiere of which was performed by Maurice Maréchal and Vlado Perlemuter. In Paris, he met Tadeusz Makowski; later on, he was to remember their meeting in a text which was published in the appendix of Wladislawa Jaworska’s study of the painter. In the thirties, he started to cooperate with the singer Tola Korian. As he wrote, ”I cannot remember how many songs I wrote for Tola. I have got some of them in the form of manuscripts, others have either been lost or no copies of them ever existed.” The songs were mainly based on Polish and French texts, many of them written by Tola Korian herself. Tola ”had no fear of performing songs that were difficult both in their meaning and musically, such as the Evangiles des Bienheureux based on Balinski’s sublime religious poetry or the deeply unsettling melodrama Mon Général based on Audiberti, or the light-hearted settings of Tuwim’s poems, Valse and Dédé le rêveur; then, she would straightaway fling herself into the macabre Héritier based on Gaston Couté.” As the composer wrote, the style of Tola Korian’s performances, her ”mimics, gestures and something undefinable” gave a work its true character; he even composed songs suited to her particular style of performance.
In 1941, Simon Laks was arrested by the authorities of the German occupying forces and interned in the French camp Pithiviers near Orléans. In July 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz II where he survived for more than two years. On October 28, 1944 he was transferred to the concentration camp in Dachau which was liberated by the American forces on April 29, 1945. On May 18, he returned to Paris. He related the story of his deportation and his survival in Auschwitz, where he had been a member and later the director of the orchestra, in Musique d’un autre monde (written in collaboration with René Coudy and published in Paris in 1948), and in the revised Polish edition, Gry oswiecimskie (London 1979, 2nd edition 1998; translated into English by Chester A. Kisiel under the title Music of another world, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill. 1989). In September 1991, Editions du Cerf published a French version of the Polish edition of 1979, Jeux Auschwitziens, with a preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet; a new edition under the title Mélodies d’Auschwitz was published 2005. The book has also been translated into German as Musik in Auschwitz, Droste Verlag, 1998; new edition Boosey & Hawkes, 2014)
Following the war, Simon Laks resettled in Paris, maintaining, however, continual contact with Poland, particulary in the immediate post-war period. In 1949, his Ballad for piano was awarded 2nd prize at the Chopin competition. In the same year, he received 3rd prize at the competition for vocal settings of Adam Mickiewicz’s poetry for his song De pures larmes me sont coulées... The following are among his works from the post-war period:
- Huit chants populaires juifs (1947)
- Poème for violin and orchestra (1954)
- Elégie pour les villages juifs (1961)
- String Quartets No.4 (1962, Grand Prix de la Reine Elisabeth in 1965) and No.5 (1963)
- Concerto da Camera for piano and 9 brass instruments (1963, Grand Prix at the competition of Divonne les Bains in 1964)
- Symphony for strings (1964)
- Concertino for reed trio (1965)
- Divertimento for flute, violin, cello and piano (1966)
Laks’s works show numerous similarities with other composers from the Paris group, particularly Michael Spisak and Antonin Szalowski. The use of baroque and classical genres, in which traditional principles of form are combined with tonal harmony, reveals typical features of neo-classicism.
Laks’s instrumental works are characterized by a technical perfection that is typical of the Ecole de Paris, including formal construction, a sense of proportion, masterly polyphonic skills, rhythmic clarity and a simple and extremely clear texture. Cyclical forms such as sonata or suite are predominant, mostly for chamber ensembles. We also find typically Polish elements, as in the Suite polonaise for violin and piano (1935) or in the String Quartet No.3, as of course in the numerous folksong settings for choir (Echos de Pologne) and for Odeon orchestrea (orchestrion) (De chaumière en chaumière).
In his numerous songs, many of which are being published for the first time by Boosey & Hawkes, Laks fuses various sources of influence. Though their origins can be found in the romantic tradition of song and Polish folksong, they also bear the marks of the French style of the interwar years. There are certain similarities with Poulenc’s songs, and sometimes he even gets close to Kurt Weill. He did not reject light music, and more than a few of his songs are half-way between serious and popular or folk music. They are characterized by a feeling for poetry, melodic invention, a characteristic treatment of the voice, a transparent piano setting and the original use of harmony (particulary in his treatment of dissonance). As the composer leaves a certain freedom to the performer, the ultimate form of his songs depend on the style of the performance.
From 1972, Simon Laks took to writing and translation. Besides music, he developed a strong interest in language, and he often published polemic views on music, questions of social style or other social or political issues. His books were published in Polish by the London-based publisher Oficyna Poetow i Malarzy (Poets’ and Painters’ Press): Episodes... Epigrammes... Epistles... (1976); Polonisms... Polemics... Politics... (1977); Arguments and Counter-Arguments (1978); Gry oswiecimskie (see above, 1979); Sullied Holiness (1980); Diary of Empty Days (1981); Low-Cost is More Expensive (1982); My War for Peace (1983); Culture With or Without Inverted Commas (1984). His translations into French include Gauguin et l’École de Pont-Aven by W. Jaworska (Neuchâtel, 1971), L’eau vide by K. Zywulska (Paris, 1972) and L’œil de Dayan by Korab (Paris, 1974).
© Zofia Helman (translation: Andreas Goebel)