1 November 1901, Warsaw — 11 December 1983, Paris


Szymon Laks was a violinist, conductor and composer. He studied mathematics for two years at Vilnius University before entering the Warsaw Conservatory, where he became a student of Roman Statkowski, Henryk Melcer, and Piotr Rytel (1921-1924). In 1926 he went to Paris to study composition with Pierre Vidal and Henry Rabaud at the Paris Conservatory. Arrested by the Germans in 1941, Laks spent three years in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. He survived the Nazi concentration camps to tell his story in a poignant and witty memoir, Musiques d’un autre monde first published in 1948 in Paris. The revised Polish edition came out in 1979. English translation of this book was published by Northeastern University Press in 1989. The new French edition appeared in 1991 and its German translation in 1999.

Quite literally, music saved Laks’s life: as a violinist, conductor, and arranger of the camp orchestra, Laks was spared the daily ordeal of physical labor that killed so many around him. At the same time, he was a Holocaust witness who experienced first-hand the irrelevance of art amidst the total annihilation of human values in concentration camps. The wartime destruction also affected his music; many of his manuscripts were lost during the war. In 1945 Laks returned to Paris, and began promoting music in Polish emigré circles.

Szymon Laks’s compositions may be described as neoclassical. They include string quartets, symphonic suites, as well as many other chamber works and songs. Deeply moving and lyrical songs constitute a particularly interesting part of Laks’s music. Some are based on Jewish folklore, whilst others include settings of texts by Polish-Jewish poets, such as Julian Tuwim, or Mieczysław Jastrun. Many of them deal with the trauma of war, suffering and the Holocaust, movingly portrayed in such works as The Elegy of Jewish Villages or the Funeral. In addition to composition, Laks (especially in his later years) devoted much time to writing and authored several fascinating books.

A large donation of original manuscripts (scores and parts) of 11 compositions by Szymon Laks made by André Laks, his son, is an extremely valuable addition to the PMC Manuscript Collection. They include Chants de la terre de Pologne, Grande fantaisie folklorique pour orchestre (score and parts), Concertino pour Trio d’Anches (score and parts), Third String Quartet (score), Fourth String Quartet (parts), and Concerto da camera (score and parts). Another part of the Collection consists of song manuscripts: Elegia żydowskich miasteczek [The Elegy of Jewish Villages] to a text by Antoni Słonimski, Mały więzień [Little Prisoner], published as no. 1 in Trois poèmes chanteés; Trois chants de Tuwim, published as no. 1-3 in Five Songs to Poems by Tuwim; Erratum, no. 4 in the same set; and Wszystko [All], no. 5 in the same set.

Besides the manuscripts, the collection also includes correspondence with the PWM Publishers and several important composers and musical personalities, including Nadia Boulanger, Józef Czapski, Igor Markevich, Krzysztof Meyer, Zygmunt Mycielski, Piotr Perkowski, Antoni Słonimski, Alexander Tansman, and Katarzyna Zachwatowicz, among others. Mr. André Laks’s donation includes also a number of published scores and books by his father.

Selected Compositions

Chamber Music

String Quartet No. 1 (1928)
String Quartet No. 2 (1932)
String Quartet No. 3 (1946)
String Quartet No. 4 (1962)
String Quartet No. 5 (1964)
Little Suite for string quartet (1929)
Quintet for wind instruments (1929)
Sonata Concertante for violin and piano (1929)
Sonata for cello and piano (1932)
Trois pièces de concert for cello and piano (1933)
Polish Suite for violin and piano (1935)
Passacaille – vocalise for cello and piano(1946)
Piano Trio (1950)
Concerto da Camera for piano, 9 wind instruments and percussion (1963)
Dialogue for 2 cellos (1964)
Concertino for wind trio (1965)
Divertimento [version I] for flute, violin, cello and piano (1966)
Divertimento [version II] for violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano (1966)
Piano Quintet on Polish Folk Themes (1967)
Suite Concertante for trombone and piano (1969)
Chorale for 4 trombones (1973)

Orchestral Works

Farys [symphonic poem] (1924)
Symphony (ca 1924)
Scherzo  (1925)
Blues symphonique jazz fantasy for orchestra and saxophone (1928)
Sinfonietta for string orchestra (1936)
Polish Suite [version for orchestra] (1936)
Passacaille – vocalise [version for voice and orchestra] (1946)
3 Warsaw Polonaises (1947)
Poème for violin and orchestra (1954)
Symphony for string orchestra (1964)

Stage Works

L’hirondelle Inattendue [opera buffa] (1965)


Three Songs texts by Julian Tuwim (1938)
From Dusks and Dawns [20 popular songs] (1939)
L’enfant qui avait volé une montre for voice and piano (1938)
Polskie echa [Polish Echoes], 8 songs for men or mixed choir (1939)
La chanson de l’héritier for voice and piano (ca 1939)
Aniołowe lica [Angels’s Faces] for voice and piano (ca 1940)
Ballada starofrancuska [Old French Ballad] for the voice and piano (ca. 1940)
Dyzio marzyciel [Dyzio the Dreamer] for the voice and piano (ca 1940)
Kolęda śląska [Silesian Carol] for voice and piano (1946)
Huit chants populaires juifs (1947)
Three Songs, texts by W.M. Berezowska (1960)
Elegia żydowskich miasteczek / Elégie pour les villages juifs / The Elegy of Jewish villages, text by Antoni Słonimski (1961)
Songs to texts by Julian Tuwim, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Mieczysław Jastrun (1961-1963)
Portrait de I’oiseau-qui-n’existe-pas (1964)
Cinq Melodies, texts by Julian Tuwim (1968)
Pocałunki [Kisses] for voice and piano (1974)

Keyboard Music

Sonatina (1927)
Blues (1945)
Sonate brève for harpsichord (1947)
Ballade Hommage a Chopin  (1949)
Prélude for piano (ca 1950)
Suite dans le gout ancien for harpsichord or piano (1966)

Film Music

Sabra [Chalutzim], dir. Aleksander Ford (1933)
Przebudzenie [Awekening], dir. Aleksander Ford (1934)
Miłość maturzystki [The Love of a High School Senior], dir. Jan Nowina-Przybylski and Aleksander Ford (1935)

Literary Works

Musiques d’un autre monde (1948); revised as Mélodies d’Auschwitz (1991)
Episodes, épigrammes, épîtres (1976)
Polonismes, polémiques, politiques (1977)
Mot et contre-mot (1978)
Jeux Auschwitziens (1979)
Souillure de sainteté (1980)
Journal des journées blanches (1981)
Le tarif réduit coûte plus cher (1982)
Ma guerre pour la paix (1983)
La culture avec guillemets et sans (1984)

Manuscripts at USC

The Szymon Laks Collection at USC includes 70 letters to and from the composer as well as over 20 manuscripts, donated by his son, André Laks in 2000.

Divertimento pour flute, violon, violoncelle et piano (n.d.). Manuscript score in black ink, 32 pages, on music paper of 20 staves. Donated by Krzysztof Meyer in 2000.

Divertimento pour flute, violon, violoncelle et piano (n.d.). Parts for flute, violin, cello and piano, on music paper of 14 staves. Donated by Krzysztof Meyer in 2000.

Trzy pieśni/Trois chants [Three songs] to poetry by Julian Tuwim. Adaptation française: Henri Lemarchand. 1. Modlitwa, 2. Szcz cie, 3. Przymierze. Manuscript score in black ink on music paper of 12 staves; 10 pages. Donated by André Laks in 2000.

Erratum, to text by Julian Tuwim. Adaptation française: Henri Lemarchand; Manuscript score in black ink on music paper of 12 staves; with the additional English text written in red ink, 4 pages. Donated by André Laks in 2000.

Wszystko/Tout te donner [Everything], with text by Julian Tuwim. Adaptation française: Henri Lemarchand. Manuscript score in black ink on 12 staves music paper, with French words in blue ink and English words in red ink, 4 pages. Donated by André Laks in 2000.

Mały więzień [Little prisoner], with text by Wanda Maja Berezowska. Manuscript score in black ink on music paper of 12 staves; 4 pages.

Elegia żydowskich miasteczek / Elégie pour les villages juifs / The Elegy of Jewish villages. Text by Antoni Słonimski. French: Henri Lemarchand, English: Robert Braun. Manuscript score in black ink on 12 staves music paper, 8 pp.

Chants de la terre Pologne: fantaisie folkloristique pour orchestre / Polska ziemia śpiewa: Wielka fantazja ludowa na orkiestrę; (1) Parts in blue and black ink, with marks in dark blue ink, on 12 staves music paper; (2) Piano reduction in dark grey ink on 22 staves music paper, 14 pages.

In His Own Words

“The Five Songs to Tuwim’s Poems draw texts from the poetry of Julian Tuwim (1894-1953), one of Poland’s most important 20th century poets. The poems of this cycle are addressed to God and comment on the spiritual value and meaning of life. The introductory Prayer continues the Biblical tradition of arguing and fighting with God, whose presence however, gives the narrator the only source of Happiness (in the second song). The bliss of closeness to the Creator is further relished in The Covenant – recalling the peace of Noah, with a dove bringing an olive twig to the faithful who are gathered under the rainbow, in a new House of God and Gods’ people. The humorous Erratum describes a spiritual failing as a mistake on the narrator’s C.V. where “one reads ‘despair’ but it should be ‘love.'” This grievous error should be corrected and the final song of the cycle points out the perfect way of doing this, i.e. offering one’s whole life (Everything) in a complete devotion to God. The spiritual reflections and gentle humor of Tuwim’s melancholy poems find an appropriate setting in Laks’s music, with its poignant dissonances, complex harmonic progressions, expressive melodic lines, and through-composed forms.”

[Program, Polish/Jewish/Music! International Conference, USC, 1998]

“In superimposing a text in a foreign language on the existing melodic line terrible difficulties arise. It seems to me that both translations did almost no harm to the original, I attended to this as well as I possibly could.”

[Laks to Antoni Słonimski, author of the text for The Elegy of Jewish Villages, 23 September 1962]

“I am delighted to notice that PWM Editors do not accept without criticism the musical-textual units provided by the composers and I am greatly impressed by this carefulness. However, in the case of the Elegy, I have to boast that not a single syllable, not a single accent were missed by me in the setting and both texts were arranged with my very active, one could almost say, merciless participation. A proof of that is provided by rhythmical variants of the vocal parts which were introduced in places where it could not be done otherwise.”

[Laks to PWM Edition on the publication of The Elegy of Jewish Villages, 29 October 1962]

Page updated on 6 April 2018