Leo Smit was born on 14 May 1900 in the Plantage district of Amsterdam. He came from a well-to-do, non orthodox Portuguese Jewish family. He started music lessons when he was very young and wrote his first composition when he was sixteen. His younger sister Nora played the harp; her teacher, the famous harpist Rosa Spier, was a regular visitor in the Smit household. From 1919 Leo Smit studied piano and composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory, where his teachers included Sem Dresden and Bernard Zweers. In 1924 he became the first student at this conservatory to achieve the grade cum laude for composition in his final exams. In 1922 when Leo Smit was still a student he wrote the orchestral work Silhouetten (Silhouettes), which was performed three years later by the Concertgebouw orchestra under Cornelis Dopper. The review in Het Volk said, "Throughout the whole suite the composer makes use of the unusual sounds produced by a black jazz band."
Not long after his degree Smit himself became a lecturer in harmony and musical appreciation, but first he was called up for military service in Harderwijk. Small and slightly-built as he was, the 24-year old Smit had a tough time surrounded by rough 18-year olds. An army doctor put him in the military hospital in Utrecht, where he was later declared unfit for service. In the meantime he had composed a number of successful musical pieces, including the Prologue for Teirlinck's ‘De Vertraagde Film’ (Film in Slow Motion). Like many other Dutch composers Smit was attracted to the new wave in French music and in 1927 he went to Paris, where he stayed nine years.
In 1930 Smit's friend, the composer Jacques Beers, joined him in Paris. Smit had plunged into the musical life of Paris and was enjoying the music of composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger and Poulenc; nevertheless he retained strong connections with Holland. In 1929 the Concertgebouw orchestra played his ballet music Schemselnihar (title taken from the name of a legendary Persian princess). In 1933 Leo Smit married Engeline de Vries ("Lientje"),who followed him to Paris. In these years Leo Smit wrote three major works featuring the harp: a trio, a quintet and a Concertino, all three for Rosa Spier; she played the Concertino in 1934 with the Concertgebouw orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum.
Leo Smit composed in a neoclassical style, often in C major. He was also inspired by the new music of his time: many of his works contain the jazz rhythms and harmonies that he enjoyed so much. Smit's style is very French, reminiscent of Ravel and Debussy; but there is also something of Hindemith in the Concerto for Viola; and Stravinsky, in the Clarinet Trio. Altogether his music is warm, melodious, full of variety, classical in form and with interesting harmonies. Before 1940 Smit had already written a number of major works: the Sextet (1932) for five wind instruments and piano, the Symphony in C (1936), the Concerto for piano and wind (1937) and the Concerto for viola and strings (1940).
After a year spent living in Brussels, Smit returned to Amsterdam in 1937, where he lived off private lessons in piano, musical theory and composition. He was in a circle of famous musicians including the mezzo soprano Jo Immink, viola player Juup Raphael and composers Daniel Ruyneman and Karel Mengelberg. Leo Smit's own name was already established in the Netherlands; his music was regularly broadcast on the radio.
With the invasion of Holland by Germany in the Second World War came an increasing number of anti-Jewish measures. The situation deteriorated for everyone, including musicians. By 1941 Jewish musicians were no longer allowed to perform in public; later they were entirely prohibited from exercising their profession. Leo Smit's non Jewish pupils began to stay away. In December 1942 he and his wife Lientje were forced to move from their house in the Eendrachtstraat to the Transvaal district. In spite of the difficult situation Smit continued to write music; his last composition is the wonderful Sonata for Flute and Piano, which he completed in February 1943.
In early April 1943 Leo Smit and his wife were rounded up in the Hollandse Schouwburg theatre and then transported to Westerbork transit camp. At the end of April they were removed to the death camp of Sobibor, where they were immediately anihilated.
The music library of Muziekcentrum van de Omroep contains the score for Leo Smit's Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello and Harp. Read or download the score at www.muziekschatten.nl
Silhouetten 1922 orchestra
Kwintet 1928 flute, viola, cello and harp
Symphonie in C 1934-36 orchestra
Concerto 1937 piano and wind instruments
Trio 1938 clarinet, viola and piano
Divertimento 1942 piano duet
Sonate 1943 flute and piano
Find out more about Leo Smit, find sheet music and listen to sound samples on www.forbiddenmusicregained.org
Silhouetten, by G.N.M Vis, ISBN10 9074560431; ISBN13 9789074560436
This book is the result of research into the life of one of the most talented Dutch composers of the first half of the 20th century. Leo Smit's life (1900-1943) was short but rich. This kaleidoscopic survey sheds light on many aspects of Smit's world. Silhouetten is more than just a book about Leo Smit; it provides a wealth of information about a period of Dutch musical and cultural history which until now has received little attention. Jurjen Vis succeeds, with a mixture of objectivity and personal involvement, in bringing an almost lost world back to life. The biography is enlivened with several eye witness interviews, bringing us closer not only to Leo Smit but also to his fellow musicians and those that shared his fate.
The book (in Dutch only) is available from Leo Smit Foundation. To order, send € 30,- to a/c number NL45 TRIO 0781 4311 31 ref. Silhouetten, giving your name and address.
Leo Smit's German language biography, based on Jurjen Vis' Smit biography 'Silhouetten'. Order directly from the publisher or send a mail to secretariaat[at]leosmit.nl