A Letter to the Polish Institute, November 1984

by Aleksander Tansman [1]

Translated by Krysta Close

Aleksander Tansman, Szymon Laks and Halina Szymulska: Paris, 1971

Although the state of my health prevents me from being present this evening, I concur whole-heartedly with every honor rendered by the Polish Institute to Szymon Laks, [3] a composer of great talent with whom I have been very good friends for a long time. I have known Szymon Laks since he arrived in Paris in 1926. Both of us being of Polish origin, we both also chose France as the framework for our musical activities. We were separated by the war for a lengthy and sorrowful period of time. I had the fortune of leaving the country with my family on the last boat before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Szymon Laks was deported to a concentration camp, where he was only able to save his life because the Nazis enjoyed music. He related these events in a moving and somber book entitled Musique d’un autre monde, which appeared in 1948 with a preface by George Duhamel [4]; he did not write a Polish version until many years later.[5]

It would be difficult to analyze the musical plan, technique and works of Szymon Laks in this letter, and so I have to limit myself to a few general remarks and bibliographical facts. After returning from Auschwitz, it took a few years before Szymon Laks was able to return completely to composition. One does not recover one’s creative equilibrium easily after such a harrowing experience. But once he resumed his musical work, he bestowed upon us two works of excellent quality, which immediately met with great public success. These were the Fourth String Quartet, which carried off the grand prize at the Quatuor de Liège competition in 1962 (where I participated, along with Roland-Manuel [6], as a member of the jury), and the Concerto da Camera, for which he received the grand prize at Divonne-les-Bains in 1964. Upon analyzing the Fourth Quartet for its radio broadcast, Roland-Manuel wrote these lines, which justly characterize the music and the personality of the author:

This piece, whose author was unknown to me, was first set upon me with a sort of necessity, like a product marked with the unmistakable sign of the Ecole de Paris. It was a string quartet whose instrumental composition was both clear and refined and so stitched together that the melodies were raised to the very height of harmonic taste, simultaneously revealing Slavic nature and French culture. I subsequently discovered that I had not been greatly mistaken in my initial evaluation. The piece was written by Szymon Laks, who had begun his studies in Poland under Melcer and Stakowski, then finished them with Paul Vidal and Henri Rabaud at the Paris Conservatory… His discretion seemed to be the distinctive mark of a musician who is apparently reluctant to attract attention either to himself or to his art, though the little that I know of him and his work serves to tame and make charming even the most severe forms of pure music.

Despite the interruption of his musical career and the loss of many scores destroyed by the war, Szymon Laks was abundant in his output, with some works still waiting to be discovered. I will cite the principal titles: Sonatina for piano; Quintet for winds; Sonata for cello and piano; Polish Suite for violin and piano; five String Quartets; Brief Sonata for harpsichord; Ballad for piano; Sinfonietta for string orchestra; Symphony for Strings; Concerto da camera for piano, nine wind instruments and percussion; Concertino for reed trio; Dialogue for two cellos; Divertimento for flute, violin, cello and piano; Suite with an Ancient Flavor for piano; The Unexpected Swallow, a one-act comic opera with a libretto by Henri Lemarchand based on a play by Claude Aveline; and many other songs for voice and piano. Szymon Laks considered these vocal works to be the most important part of his oeuvre, among which one could mention in particular the Passacaille; Eight Popular Jewish Songs; Elegy for Jewish Villages, based on a poem by Antoni Słonimski; The Portrait of a Bird That Does Not Exist, based on a poem by Claude Aveline; and pieces written to texts by Julian Tuwim. This evening you will hear several of these compositions, but you must desire that each and every one of them will soon rediscover its rightful place in the current repertoire, one which is worthy of the richness and subtlety that his music exhibits.

The literary works of Szymon Laks took a place of growing importance in the last few years of his life. We again find the same engaging personality of the polemicist of a universal culture, endowed with a quasi Anglo-saxon humor colored by his Jewish heritage. In his books he returns, in various forms, to those ideas which were, beyond musical composition, the three most central interests of his life: musicological problems, linguistic problems — it is appropriate to point out here that Szymon Laks was a talented translator, both from Polish to French and French to Polish — and finally political problems, especially those concerning Jews all over the world and in the Middle East.

As we have seen, there is much to be said about the different aspects of the creative activities of Szymon Laks, concerning the extent of his knowledge and his conception of music in the contemporary world. An entire monograph would be necessary to handle this subject. Here, I must be content to count myself among the most sincere admirers of the personality and the works of this man.

A friend,
Alexandre Tansman
Royal Academy of Belgium


[1]. The typescript of this letter is found in the Szymon Laks Correspondence donated to the Polish Music Center by Andre Laks, the composer’s son. It was read at a concert dedicated to the music of Szymon Laks and held at the Polish Institute in Paris in 1984. Due to the state of his health Tansman was not able to attend. All notes by Krysta Close. [Back]

[2]. This photograph was taken from: Szymon Laks, Epizody…Epigramy…Epistoły… [Episodes, Epigrammes, Epistles]. (London: Oficyna Poetów i Malarzy, 1976), insert after p. 96.[Back]

[3]. Szymon Laks (1901-1983) was a neo-classical composer and writer. Born and educated in Poland, he emigrated to settle in Paris in 1926 (he survived Auschwitz). For more bibliographical infomation on this composer as well as a list of works, please see his Composer Page on the Polish Music Center website. [Back]

[4]. George Duhamel (1884-1966) was a French author, successful in the realms of fiction and drama. Much of the inspiration for his stories came from his experience as a WWI surgeon as well as his distaste for industrialization. He, like Laks, was known for his compassionate portrayal of human suffering. [Back]

[5]. Musique d’un autre monde was printed in Paris by Mercure. It is a French translation of Laks’s Auschwitz memoirs, published in Polish in 1948 as Gry oswiecimskie (second revised edition; Oswiecim: Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim-Brzezinka, 1979). English translation: Music of Another World , transl. by Chester A. Kisiel (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1989). [Back]

[6]. Born Roland Alexis Manuel Lévy (1891-1966), he was known as Roland-Manuel. Roland-Manuel worked as a musicologist and composer in Paris. He was the author of many musicological and pedagogical books, and became Professeur d’esthétique at the Conservatoire (1947-1961). [Back]

Aleksander Tansman (b. Lódź, 1897, d. Paris, 1986) was a composer, conductor, and pianist. He studied at the Lódź Conservatory (with Piotr Rytel) and took courses in law and philosophy at Warsaw University. In 1919 he settled in Paris where he met the leading artists of his time, including Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and others. As a pianist he toured Europe, Canada and the Middle East with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. His music was performed by the most famous soloists and ensembles of his time; his champions included conductors Stokowski and Toscanini. Tansman survived the war in the U.S.; after returning to France in 1946 he contiunued to compose and to write about music, including a book on Stravinsky. The composer repeatedly expressed the conviction that his music is rooted in Polish culture, and he included Polish dances, rhythms, and topics in many pieces (e.g. cycles of Mazurkas, the Polish Rhapsody, works inspired by and dedicated to Chopin). The composer also cherished his Jewish heritage, expressing it in many works written throughout his career, e.g. the Hebrew Rhapsody (1938), oratorio Isaiah The Prophet (1950), Apostrophe to Sion (1978), and other pieces. Tansman’s music belongs to the realm of neoclassicism, enriched by a plurality of influences and models, including jazz, folk dances, and the music of the Far East. The author of a Javanese Dance, he also composed a Blues, an Oberek, and the virtuosic Mazurka and Toccata. During the post-war years he displayed no interest in avant-garde experimentation and remained faithful to his unique brand of the neoclassical style. Tansman’ s extensive list of works contains compositions for the stage (operas, ballets), pieces for orchestra, chamber music, and songs in several languages. [MT]