Leo Smit was born to a wealthy, non-orthodox Portuguese Jewish family, on May 14, 1900 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Together with his wife he was deported by the Germans in 1943, via Westerbork to Sobibór extermination camp. Upn arrival, they were immediately annihilated.
From 1919, Leo Smit studied piano and composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory with 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.
After his graduation, Smit became a teacher in analysis and harmony at the Amsterdam Conservatory.
He went on to live for 10 years abroad – mostly in Paris and one year in Brussels, but returned to Amsterdam in 1937, where he gave private lessons in piano, music theory, analysis, and composition.
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 also has French influences, 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 has interesting harmonies.
Leo wrote his first composition when he was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, all of his works written before 1922 have been lost.
In 1925, his first orchestral work, ‘Silhouetten‘, (Silhouettes) was premiered by the Amsterdam Conservatory under Isaac Mossel and, three years later, performed 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.”
Leo Smit became well-known with several “scene musics” for student associations, such as the ‘A-Z game’ for Leiden.
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 for nine years. Nevertheless, he retained strong connections with Holland. In 1929, the Concertgebouw Orchestra played his ballet music, ‘Schemselnihar‘.
In the following years, Leo Smit wrote three major works featuring the harp: a ‘Trio‘ (for flute, viola and harp), a ‘Quintet‘, (for flute, string trio and harp) and a ‘Concertino‘ (for harp and orchestra). He wrote all three for Rosa Spier; she played the ‘Concertino‘ in 1934 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Eduard van Beinum.
With the German invasion of Holland in the Second World War, 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. 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.