[This "Collateral Damage" is the first of a projected series of pieces on musicians whose careers were shortened by the vicissitudes of war.]
Since the '90s, there has been an increased awareness of significant composers whose lives and careers were cut short by the horrors that consumed Europe between 1941 and 1945, and whose names and artistic legacies had gotten lost as a result. This process has added a new dimension to our understanding of music in the 20th century. Along with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss, we now recognize names like Ervin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, and Gideon Klien as major voices of their time. However, one name continues to elude even that list, though it belongs there -â€“ that of Dutchman Leo Smit. (It doesn't help that another eminent American composer and pianist of the same name lived somewhat later, adding to the confusion.)
Born in Amsterdam in 1900, Leo Smit dropped out of high school in order to enter the Amsterdam Conservatory; he was the first composition student in the conservatory's history to graduate cum laude. In 1927, he moved to Paris and lived there 10 years, operating on the fringes of "Les Six," the group of neo-classical composers that included Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud, whose work he greatly admired. He married in 1932, and after a year spent in Brussels, Smit finally returned to Amsterdam in 1938 to accept a teaching position at his alma mater.
Smit's timing proved poor. By 1940, his new works had been moved off the regular concert rolls in Amsterdam and crammed onto programs otherwise consisting of Jewish liturgical music in segregated ghettos; Smit and his wife were forced to wear the yellow star. Aware of the grave danger he was in, Smit placed his music in the care of a non-Jewish pupil, Frits Zuiderweg, in late 1942. On April 27, 1943, Smit was transported to the SobibÃ³r extermination camp in Poland where they perished three days later.
Smit's music remained in cold storage and unperformed until 1995. When it was finally revived, listeners discovered it was urbane, witty, cosmopolitan, polished, sophisticated, and first class all the way. Smit had said, in a 1940 interview, "Personal style, in essence a higher form of originality, should not be striven for but develops gradually as a composer's oeuvre evolves." His music bears that out -- Smit worked not to create a singular, primarily innovative style so much as to fully digest influences into something personal, an approach reminiscent of his contemporaries such as Poulenc and Bohuslav Martinu. However, this too has worked against Smit in posterity to some degree, as we have developed something of a potted perspective on the composers consumed by the Holocaust. Certainly Hans KrÃ¡sa's children's opera BrundibÃ¡r, with its veiled message of resistance against the "brown bears" indicated in the title, is easier to relate to the Holocaust experience than any of Smit's joyously irreverent concoctions.
Lucas Vis, Nederlands Chamber Orchestra - Overture to Teirlinck's "De Vertraagde Film" (1923)
Frans Von Ruth, piano - Hommage Ã Sherlock Holmes (1928)
Daniel Raskin, viola; Philippe Entremont, Nederlands Chamber Orchestra - Concert for viola & strings (1940)
Jacobien Rozemond & Marjike van Kooten, violins; Edith van Moergastel, viola; Doris Hochsheid, cello - String Quartet (1939-43)
For more on Leo Smit, visit the Leo Smit Foundation.