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Simon Wynberg is a chamber musician and artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, a musical group known for its recovery and revival of music lost to political suppression. If the performance in Warsaw proved a stirring experience for Halina Szpilman, it was no less stirring for the performers, the Toronto-based ARC Ensemble.
The score of the Piano Quintet is built on popular Polish melodies, many of them still familiar, and their effect on audiences in Warsaw was electrifying. At the turn of the 20th century, when Laks was born, Warsaw was still a provincial capital under the Russian tsar, and Poland as a whole was still under the divided yoke of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Imperial Russia; it did not gain temporary independence until Even as he grew and matured as a composer, he never abandoned these French roots.
One of his initial published works, issued in , was an elegant and very French sonatina for piano, with echoes of Stravinsky and Ravel. Its craftsmanship revealed a composer of uncommon ability, and its energy and rhythmic vitality would become hallmarks of subsequent compositions. Rounded up and taken to the transit camp at Pithiviers, about 50 miles south of Paris, he was eventually deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 17, Laks would remember little of the journey, which took nearly three days, save for a single incident when the train stopped and he managed to push through the human crush to a small meshed window, the only source of fresh air.
Through the opening he made out the name of the station. It was Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach: a town he had always wanted to visit. On arriving in Auschwitz, Laks was tattooed with the number and sent to work in a labor detail. Prisoners generally survived only a few weeks before succumbing to the combination of punishing work, beatings, minimal nutrition, and the cramped, dehumanizing, unsanitary conditions. The details of how Laks managed to survive are chronicled in a dispassionate memoir he published shortly after the war, later issued in English as Music of Another World.
When it emerged that he was a musician, his kapo immediately arranged for him to join the camp orchestra.
Szymon Laks's Music of Another World
He proceeded to turn out arrangements of favorite songs, potpourris, and musical diversions for which he was paid in cigarettes, the camp currency. Survival became even likelier when he was appointed conductor, replacing a seriously underqualified German Pole named Franz Kopka.
He candidly describes his role in initiating the switch:. I admit it without any scruples—I had intentionally introduced into my orchestrations the greatest number of difficulties in rhythm, counterpoint, and syncopation, for the percussion instruments as well, which made it impossible for Kopka to conduct the rehearsals, let alone public performances!
The ploy was hardly without risks. Making Laks still more useful was the fact that in addition to his skills as a violinist, composer, arranger, and conductor, he was something of a polyglot, being fluent in Polish and French, comfortable in English, German, and Russian, and passably familiar with other languages as well. There has been considerable debate over the role of music in the camps. Beyond its obvious utility to the Nazis, did it in any way ameliorate the suffering of the prisoners, recalling to their tortured spirits the persistence in the world of beauty, nobility, and grace?
Could it even have instilled or rekindled the will to live? Laks himself grants none of this. He writes dispassionately about the marches played as labor detachments left in the morning and returned at night always, it seemed, at a slower tempo ; about the tunes from popular operettas played as macabre commentary at assemblies; and about the bespoke performances that indulged the cultural pretensions of SS officers.
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To the contrary, the privileges enjoyed by orchestra members—increased rations, reduced physical labor—were often bitterly resented and led to inevitable suspicions of collaboration. Once the orchestra was disbanded, Laks was transported briefly to Sachsenhausen and then to a sub-camp of Dachau.
By mid-May, Laks was back in Paris.
Two years later, he became a French citizen. In the immediate postwar years, he left his apartment only when obliged to and avoided social interaction. There is nothing in it — or in the version for piano quintet — to suggest anything but a cheerful divertissement effectively stitching together various well-known Polish songs and dances. Indeed, its conception, if not its composition, may well have begun while Laks was still a camp prisoner.
We know that he arranged Polish material there, specifically the three Polonaises reproduced in the appendix of Music of Another World— and perhaps elements of that composition are included somewhere in the twelve or so melodies that feature in the third quartet.