Jazz and neoclassicism: the music of Leo Smit

My apologies for the delayed post – I’ve been quite busy over the past week or two, and I felt that today would be a more appropriate day to write about this composer.

Today is my birthday, but on a more poignant note, it’s also Holocaust Remembrance Day. People from all walks of life were affected by the Holocaust, including a number of composers whose lives and careers were tragically cut short. In this post, I’ll take a look at one such individual – the Dutch composer and pianist Leo Smit.

Leo Smit
Credit: Leo Smit Foundation

Smit was born on May 14, 1900 to a Portuguese Jewish family in Amsterdam. He began music lessons at a very young age and wrote his first composition at 16; his younger sister Nora was also a talented harpist and studied with the renowned Rosa Spier, who frequently visited his family’s home.

At 19, Smit entered the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition with Sem Dresden and Bernard Zweers. Three years later, he wrote his first major work, Silhouetten, which was premiered by the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Silhouetten is a colorful piece influenced by the ideas of jazz as well as by contemporary classical music of the time. Especially notable is Smit’s manipulation of timbre – the sound quality of a particular instrument or group of instruments –  to elicit different emotions from the listener; the delicate touch of the pitched percussion, the rhythmic elements in the unpitched percussion, and the magic of harp arpeggios particularly stand out in this regard. These characteristics and influences combine to create an engaging work, one which, sadly, is almost always passed over by major orchestras.

Two years after writing Silhouetten, Smit graduated from the Conservatory, finding a post as a lecturer in harmony and music appreciation. During this time, he was also called for military service, but was quickly declared unfit for service because of his short and slight figure.

In 1927, Smit left his homeland for Paris, where he associated with the likes of Les Six and delved deeply into the work of Stravinsky and Ravel. This period saw an evolution in Smit’s style of composition – many of his later works have a clear French influence, having much in common with Ravel and Debussy. In 1933, Smit married Engeline de Vries and entered probably his most productive musical period, writing a trio, quintet, and concertino for harp (all dedicated to and premiered by Rosa Spier); over the next seven years, he would go on to write concerti for piano and winds and viola and strings, as well as his only symphony.

In 1936, Smit moved to Brussels before returning to Amsterdam the following year, giving private lessons in piano, theory, and composition. By this time, he had become well-known in the Netherlands, with his music regularly being played on the radio.

Sadly, the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany turned Smit’s life upside down. By 1941, Jewish musicians were no longer allowed to perform – eventually being banned from music completely – and Smit’s non-Jewish students began leaving him. The following year, Smit was forced to leave his house for another district of Amsterdam. Despite these hardships, he continued to compose, completing his final work, a sonata for flute and piano, in February 1943.

In early April 1943, Smit and his wife were rounded up in the Hollandse Schouwburg theatre. After a month in a transit camp, they were transferred to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where they were killed in the gas chambers.

Smit left behind about 25 works, spanning music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments, and voice. Despite a revival of interest over the last few decades, Smit’s music still rarely performed; given the quality and breadth of his oeuvre, it deserves far more.

All the biographical information in this post is drawn from Wikipedia as well as the Leo Smit Foundation, whose goal is to inform the public about the lives and work of composers persecuted during World War II. There are many more composers whom the foundation has profiled – I would highly recommend reading about at least one or two of them under the “Composers” section of the website to understand the contexts in which they lived and worked.

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