Even if you have never visited Maximilian Kolbe’s prison cell in Block 11, Auschwitz, Matthew Mayer’s new album will take you there. “16670” is a magnificent and bold album that captures the essence of Koble’s lifelong mission. There is no anger here, no hatred – only burning defiance against oppression and evil ideologies. It is also a tribute to a great intellect. “16670” is hands down the most important New Age music release of 2020 – and yet another fabulous album by Matthew Mayer!
Matthew Mayer grew up in a small town in South Dakota. He self-published his first solo piano album “Crossing the Bridge” in 1999 at the age of 20 – and has so far released 13 albums, the most recent being “Ardor” (2017) and “Beautiful You” (2018). Mayer is the owner/Founder of SoloPiano.com, home of over 450 piano artists from around the world. Mayer first heard of the story of Rajmund Maximilian Kolbe when he was a young boy. In 2015, Mayer flew to Poland to see where this man had walked before and where his act happened. Experiences here inspired Mayer to compose and record “16670”.
The Life of Maximilian Kolbe
I’m going to give a summary of the life of Rajmund Kolbe (with the help of Wikipedia). Without this knowledge, it is hard to understand what “16670” is all about. Kolbe was born on 8 January 1894 in Zduńska Wola, in the Kingdom of Poland. His father was an ethnic German, and his mother was Polish. In 1918, Kolbe was ordained a priest and in 1919 he earned a doctorate in theology. Between 1930 and 1933 he did missionary work in China, Japan and later India.
Kolbe returned to Poland and stayed at a monastery in Niepokalanów, which was shut down in February 1941 by German authorities. He was arrested because he refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, which would have given him rights similar to those of German citizens. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670. At the end of July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting the deputy camp commander to pick ten men to be starved to death. When one of the selected men cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to an eyewitness, who was an assistant janitor at that time, in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection. He died on 14 August 1941. In 1982, he was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II.
I term of lay-out, “16670” has an in medias res effect. The first piece takes us to 28 May 1941, when Maximilian Kolbe was taken to Auschwitz and became prisoner 16670. It is a magnificent piece that instantly connects with the listener. Mayer plays like a true virtuoso, confirming that he is one of the finest pianists on the New Age music scene. One word; bravo!
Having visited Nazi extinction camps myself, I know the impact it has on us when seeing “mountains” of shoes, clothes, teddy bears and other effects left behind by people who were gassed or killed in some other brutal way. The same goes for glasses, which is the title of the next piece. Glasses also was a prominent feature of Maximilian Kolbe’s looks. He was a scholar in every sense of the word. “Glasses” is a nice and short piece that fades effortlessly into “Simple Humanity”. Even for anyone as religious and well-read as Kolbe, the very depth of this evil must have been impossible to understand. Where is humanity in an extinction camp? It should have been simple, easy as Mayer’s “Simple Humanity”.
For A Stranger
The most fascinating aspect of the life of prisoner 16670 – which I also believe Mayer’s music communicates brilliantly – is that he could have left the camp anytime he wanted. As a man of German ancestry with an incredible intellect (he had a double doctorate), he “only” had to accept the fact that the Nazi party was in charge. The Nazis had no problem with him from a religious standpoint. Instead, he volunteered to die. “For A Stranger” portrays this ultimate generosity.
One of the finest songs here is “Polish Flowers”. Having visited Poland many times (my wife is Polish), I can easily envision the landscape Mayer is painting with his piano. This was also the landscape that was plain to see from Auschwitz in the Spring of 1941, flowers and all. When talking about the life of Kolbe, it is almost always his religious acts and writings that are discussed. But he was also a philosopher, which the pieces “Philosophy of End” and “Choices” describe. He had been teaching Kant’s moral philosophy for many years, which perhaps also influenced his choices. To die for someone else was not a purely religious act. There is a lot of philosophy in this. “Visions (Dreams 6)” takes our mind flying, far away from the cruelty of man.
The ending leaves me breathless every time. I believe “Block 17” and “Block 11” are not about the death of prisoner 16670. That was just one man dying in a war that killed millions. No, it is about what we all feel when visiting a place like Auschwitz – and how determined we get that such acts should never happen again. “Block 17” and “Block 11” balance many conflicting emotions in a fantastic way.
The album ends on a high note. We are back to Kolbe’s childhood. Perhaps the piece is about his vision of the Virgin Mary, which he had when he was 12 years old? Already at this stage, he was determined to become both a priest and a martyr.
In conclusion: Matthew Mayer is right that the history of prisoner 16670 is one that never leaves you. I feel immense gratitude that Mayer was able to record this fine album and keep the legacy of Saint Maximilian Kolbe alive. It is also worth mentioning that the atmosphere of the album in every way is in tune with the teaching of the Saint. It is not overly sad, and it is not angry either. Just like Mary watched her son die on the cross, prisoner 16670 accepted his fate with grace and love. Matthew Mayer portrays this emotion perfectly. As he puts it: Not all heroes wear capes. I’m tempted to add; sometimes they wear prison uniforms.
Score: 97/100 – See our scoring policy
For more information and music samples, visit matthewmayer.com