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Leo Kok
(1893-1992)

Leo Kok


Leo Kok (1893-1992) was born in Amsterdam of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. Both parents died shortly after his birth, so that he was brought up first by his grandmother and then by his aunt in The Hague. His first serious experience of music dates from this time; he learned to play the piano and discovered his own talent for composition. He had other interests also such as boxing and football. In 1912 he even went as a member of the Dutch football team to Paris, a city where he later lived for a while.

Leo Kok studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague under Willem Pijper (1894-1947), who as his composition tutor greatly influenced him.

Kok was a confirmed pacifist. During the First World War he was held prisoner in Den Helder until 1917. Not long thereafter he met the soprano Hetty Marx, and their son Iddo was born in 1921. The pair separated a few years later. In the 1920s Kok’s international fame spread. For nearly a year he worked in Berlin, playing and composing in close collaboration with dancers such as Lili Green and Charlotte Bara. Here he also met other expressionist dancers and choreographers. He became Bara’s most important musical partner; together they went on tour in almost every country in Europe. Bara enabled Leo Kok to settle in Ascona, Switzerland, where he lived for many years and ultimately died.

In the 1920s and 30s Kok shuttled between Ascona and Paris, which he regarded as his spiritual home. He moved in avantgarde circles and mixed with names such as Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.

As a reaction to the rise of national socialism in Europe Kok joined the resistance movement. He went to London and was trained by the British as a spy; his numerous concert tours in southern Europe were an ideal cover for all kinds of spy activities. When Hitler occupied France, Kok was one of a resistance group who smuggled people over the Pyrenees through the Free Zone to Spain. On 24 January 1944 he was arrested in Paris and deported as a Dutch political prisoner to Buchenwald, where he was repeatedly tortured. Fortunately the Nazis never discovered Kok’s Jewish background. Buchenwald was delivered by the Americans on 11 April 1945. Kok stayed in order to take part on 19 April in the memorial service for an estimated 56,000 murdered prisoners, when he conducted the Death of Ase from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.

In 1946 Kok settled in Ascona and opened his bookshop called Libreria della Rondine. This antiquarian bookshop soon became the meeting place for all the local intellectuals and artists. Leo Kok’s career as a pianist came to an end with the war: under torture his wrists had been irreparably damaged. He was however able to take up composition again, in particular for the famous puppet theatre that had been opened in Ascona before the war (1937). 'Monsieur Leo' ran his bookshop until 1979 and died on 7 August 1992 in Ascona. His ashes were cast from his favourite bridge, Pont des Arts, into the Seine.

Diet Scholten


Selected works

Plainte 1916 for violin and piano
Sept mélodies retrouvées 1916-18 for voice and piano
Trois danses exotiques 1925 piano
Enfance 1927 piano
Chanson pour les enfants qui n'ont pas de Noël 1927 for violin and piano
Fahrendes Volk 1955 music for the puppet theatre

Find out more about Leo Kok, find sheet music and listen to sound samples on www.forbiddenmusicregained.org

Recently a cd with chamber music by Leo Kok was released on Gideon Boss Musikproduktion with Irene Maessen (soprano), Ursula Schoch (violin) and Marcel Worms (piano). The box includes a booklet with Kok's illustrated biography and received the highest praise from music critics.

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