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The Seiber Centenary: 2005 and Beyond

by Julia Seiber Boyd
posted 09 August 2005

This year sees the centenary of the Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber – my father. Although he was one of the few Hitlerflüchtling composers to prosper in Britain , his music and his reputation had been in slow decline since his tragically early death in 1960. This centenary year has seen a remarkable upsurge in interest in his life and music: his cantata Ulysses was performed at Morley College in London, accompanied by an exhibition in the Morley College Gallery; the three string quartets were performed in Cambridge and London and are scheduled for recording shortly; other recordings are in the pipeline. The CD recorded by Hungaroton in April is scheduled to appear shortly before two concerts in Hungary in early October. A study of Seiber by Professor Graham Hair will appear soon [and will be reviewed in this journal – ed.].

A Brief Biography

Born and educated in Budapest in 1905, Mátyás Seiber graduated from the gymnasium, reported as ‘outstanding’ in mathematics and Latin. He then studied his first instrument, cello, and then composition with Kodály at the Music Academy . During this period, he toured widely with Kodály, studying and helping him notate the rural traditional folksongs. His interest in carrying on this enterprise benefited from his facility for foreign languages – and this has created many folk song settings, as well as works for choral and solo performances.

While still in Hungary , he submitted a sextet in 1925 for a composition competition, where Kodály and Bartók on the jury. The counter-movement to the ‘progressive’ music he personified did not allow him to win; Bartók, furious, resigned from the jury.

In 1927 he left Hungary and settled in Germany where he was the first Professor of Music and Jazz in Frankfurt . In 1933, the Nazi disapproval of jazz and Jews (however secular) forced emigration to England , after a period of travel as part of a ship’s string quartet. He settled in London in 1935 and taught composition at Morley College , where he was invited to fill a vacancy by Michael Tippett, in 1942. During this period, he created and trained his own choir, The Dorian Singers. In 1947 he married Lilla Bauer, a fellow exile from Hungary , a former dancer for whom the role of ‘the young girl’ in TheGreenTable of the Ballet Joos was created. She also studied with Laban, and was by 1947 a lecturer in Modern Dance at Goldsmiths’ College. The couple settled in Caterham, Surrey , where Mátyás also taught at home.

Seiber continued to build his reputation as a composer and outstanding teacher, attracting pupils from all over Europe , including Hugh Wood and Anthony Gilbert, Peter Racine Fricker and Ingvar Lidholm, and from further afield, including the Australians Don Banks and David Lumsdaine.

Seiber’s works were performed at Cheltenham and other national music festivals including the 1956 Hoffnung Festival in London . He was a founder member of the Society for Promotion of New Music, actively promoting this throughout his life. He did much to introduce both Bartók’s and Kodály’s work to public notice in Britain .

His life and work linked and developed many diverse musical influences, from the Hungarian tradition of Bartók and Kodály, via continental European and serial music, to jazz and folksong and lighter, popular music.

He had many friendships and often worked with soloists, including the guitarist Julian Bream, the percussionist Jimmy Blades, the folksinger A. L. Lloyd and tenor Peter Pears. His life-long friendships with Ligeti and other intellectuals, including his own Hungarian philosopher brother-in-law, Professor Dezsõ Keresztury (married to his sister, Marika) , were recorded in correspondence. He also composed film music for his friends, the progressive animation couple Halas & Batchelor, the best-known being AnimalFarm. He continued his interest in jazz and less serious music and was awarded the Ivor Novello Prize for the song, By the Fountains of Rome, which actually made it to the ‘top ten’. One of his late works involved collaboration with John Dankworth and the Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra.

Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in South Africa while on a concert tour in 1960, aged only 55: he was being driven through the Kruger National Park when the car went out of control and hit a tree. His widow continues to live in their house in Caterham.

As Hungary rediscovers its central role in Europe , we are this year commemorating a composer and teacher who contributed to British and Hungarian musical development in the twentieth century. A selective list of his works will indicate the wealth of music that is awaiting rediscovery.

Shortlist of Works

Orchestral Music

  • Fantasia Concertante for violin and string orchestra (1943; 17 mins.; Ars Viva Verlag, Mainz ; BL)
  • Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra (1951; 15 mins.)
  • Notturno for horn and string orchestra (1944) (8.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Besardo Suite No. 2 (1942; 14 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Elegyfor viola and small orchestra (1954; 8 mins.)
  • Tre Pezzifor cello and orchestra (1957; 20 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra (with John Dankworth) (1959; 14 min.; BL)

Instrumental and Chamber Music

  • String Quartet No. 1 (1925; 18 mins.; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1935; 22 mins.; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 3, Quartettolirico (1951; (23 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Divertimento for Clarinet and string Quartet ( 1925; Schott)
  • Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quintet (1958; 6.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Violin Sonata (1960; S chott; BL)
  • Concert Piecefor violin and piano (1954; 8 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Serenadefor six wind instruments (1925; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen ; BL )
  • 2 Jazzolettes for 2 saxophone, 2 &2 .(1929 and 1932; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen ; BL )
  • Sonata da Camera (6 mins.)

Vocal Works with Orchestra

  • Ulysses : cantata for tenor solo, choir and orchestra (1947; 45 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Three Fragments from the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (?? min.; Schott; BL)

A cappella Choral Music

  • Missa Brevis (1924, revised 1950; 14 mins.; Curwen; BL)

Songs for Solo Voice/Choral and Accompaniment

  • To Poetry (1952; 18 mins.; BL)
  • The Great Tay Whale ( BL)
  • The Greek Folk Songs (11 mins.)
  • The French Songs (7 mins.)
  • Medieval French Songs
  • Petőfi Songs (4 Hungarian Folk Songs) (12 m ins.)
  • The Yugoslav Folk Songs
  • Three Hungarian Folk Songs
  • Lear Nonsense Songs


  • The Invitation (1960; BL)

 Film Music

  • Animal Farm
  • A Town Like Alice
  • The Owl and the Pussycat
  • Chase a Crooked Shadow
  • The Magic Canvas
  • Robbery Under Arms

As G. S. Mathis

  • Various accordion pieces (and Mathis method of teaching accordion in 10 sessions)
  • Light Dances (M. Seiber, arr. G. S. Mathis)

For further information consult www.seiber2005.org.uk




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