“Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble...” This might have been the expression of surprise of a number of composers described in this booklet, had they known that because of their shared tragic destiny they would come to be known as a group. The Nazis simply called them all "Jewish composers”. If you really listen to their music, only Sim Gokkes deserves this description. His compositions have the distinct sound of the synagogue; it is impossible in his music not to hear his Jewish background.
As a boy Sim Gokkes had singing lessons from the opera singer Ben Geijsel, and later from Victor Schlesinger, cantor at the Rapenburg synagogue. Here in 1912 Sim Gokkes’ first compositions were performed. When he was in his teens Gokkes conducted various choirs. He then began his studies at the Conservatory, ending in 1919 as a piano student of Sem Dresden. After his studies Gokkes became a choir conductor. Amongst other activities, he founded the Amsterdam Choral School, and for many years he conducted the choir of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdan. As a conductor he also rescued many operas, notably works by Cherubini and Cimarosa, from oblivion.
In 1923 Sim Gokkes married the pianist Rebecca Winnik, who was also musically akin to him. They had two children and up until 1943 the Gokkes family lived in the Jewish quarter around Oosterpark in Amsterdam.
A large part of Gokkes’ musical work was lost during the Second World War. Some manuscripts can still be found in the Nederlands Muziek Instituut (Netherlands Music Institute) in The Hague. His works were regularly performed in the Netherlands in his lifetime, which brought him considerable fame. Gokkes’ Hebrew Songs were performed in the Salle Pleyel in Paris by the singer Lotti Muskens-Sleurs, accompanied at the piano by the composer himself.
A few years ago cantor Berry Mehler discovered Gokkes’ ‘Sjire Kodesj’ in the archives of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. This is a collection of anthems for use during worship in a synagogue. In this work Gokkes tried to render traditional Jewish anthems in their original authenticity and purity, which he considered had been lost in the course of time. According to Gokkes, the influence of worldly music such as opera had gone too far. Ironically, in his attempts to restore the old forms, Gokkes used the techniques of modern music. Gokkes’ work became a reference for the famous cantor Hans Blumenthal.
The work entitled ‘Kinah’, on the other hand, for solo voice, wind quintet and piano (1928), inspired by the laments in Jeremia, sounds extremely modern. With the exception of the song Adonaj, Ilohénoe, which only occurs once, the singers mouth exclusively the syllable ‘ha’, which was a decidedly modern way to write at the time. In the same year Gokkes wrote a number of sensitive songs around Dutch, Hebrew and French texts.
One of Gokkes' last works is the Sonatina for piano (1939), a type of collage based on themes from the Book of Esther, which is recited during the Feast of Purim. According to this biblical story, the Jewish Queen Esther was able to warn her husband, the Persian King Achachverosh, in good time of a plot for the mass murder of his Jewish subjects. A thousand years later, as we all know, no-one was able to stop a similar plan to anihilate all the European Jews. Sim Gokkes and his family did not survive the Second World War: in 1943 they were all exterminated in Auschwitz.
Sonatine 1939 piano
Kinah 1928 solo voices, wind quintet and piano
Songs 1926/1928 voice and piano
Shire Kodesh 1937 male choir