Many years ago I sang as a bass in the Stepps and District Choral
Society. This amateur group gave a number of concerts in the
Glasgow/Lanarkshire area. Amongst the usual diet of Christmas
Carols and choruses from Messiah, I can recall only
one other work that we performed – the Three Hungarian Folksongs
by Mátyás Seiber, in the SATB version. In fact, I still have
the sheet music: I must have forgotten to return it to the choirmaster.
I was unable to find a reference to this Society on the ’net,
so I assume that it has gone the way of all flesh along with
many of their number. I may be mistaken, but I believe that
one or two of the members had sung with Sir Hugh Roberton and
his Orpheus Choir.
Unfortunately, I have heard little of Mátyás Seiber’s music
since – with the honourable exception of the fine Besardo
Suite No.2 for string orchestra (1942) released on the
Dutton Epoch label in 2007. A brief glance at the Arkiv CD listings
reveals very few recordings of Seiber's music: there
appears to be only one Delphian disc dedicated solely to his
music - the Three
String Quartets. So this present release is a most welcome
addition to the catalogue.
It is easy to find biographical information about Seiber on
the Internet; however a brief note may be useful in this review.
Mátyás Seiber was born in Hungary in 1905. He studied with Zoltan
Kodály at the Budapest Academy of Music. However, after the
Great War he moved to Germany where he worked as an orchestral
player, a conductor and a teacher of composition and jazz at
the Hoch Conservatory, Frankfurt. In 1935, he moved to the United
Kingdom as a refugee and continued to write music. He taught
privately and at Morley College. Seiber's musical style
is wide-ranging – it embraces serialism, Bartókian influences
and film music. His most important works include the Third String
Quartet and the cantata Ulysses, a setting of words
derived from James Joyce’s novel. Seiber died in a car crash
in the Kruger National Park, South Africa on 24 September 1960.
The key to understanding Mátyás Seiber’s music is to recognise
the stylistic trajectories which he explored during his short
life. Julia Seiber Boyd notes the composer’s abiding interest
in folk music from a wide variety of backgrounds. The present
CD includes Yugoslav and Hungarian tunes. His output has further
examples of French Medieval and English folk song settings.
As noted above, Seiber lectured in Jazz Studies in Frankfurt.
This was also influential in his music. There were the Two
Jazzolettes and the ‘blues’ movements in the Second String
Quartet. Then there was his ‘popular’ music side – the song
Fountains of Rome written in 1956 became a ‘top ten’ hit
and subsequently won an Ivor Novello award. Schoenberg, Kodaly
and Bartok were hugely influential
on Seiber’s music. One distinguishing feature of his music was
his ‘impish sense of humour.’ Another is his characteristic
mix of Hungarian-German-Englishness. These traits are especially
obvious in a number of tracks on this present CD.
It is not necessary to give a detailed analysis of the folk
songs, save to point out that both the Hungarian and the Yugoslav
numbers are often a little melancholic. However the harmonic
language is always appealing and approachable. Perhaps the loveliest
of these numbers is the ‘Fairy Tale’ from the Yugoslav settings.
They are a joy and a pleasure to listen to.
The Two Soldiers Songs, ‘Spring’ and ‘Farewell’ perfectly reflect
that sadness of parting from a loved one to go on active service.
The translations of these Hungarian poems are by present disc’s
choral director, Howard Williams.
I was impressed with the Missa Brevis, which dates
back to 1924. It is a good balance of ‘new’ music and plainsong
derived from the Latin service book, Liber Usualis. There is
a timeless beauty about the entire work that defies analysis.
It would be effective in any cathedral or parish church.
I believe that the ‘masterpiece’ of this present CD is Seiber’s
setting of Sirmio. It is a near perfect combination
of the Latin poet Catullus’s words with music that well-describes
the joyous mood of the poet’s homecoming. Sirmio is located
at the southern end of Lake Garda and is reputed to be the site
of Catullus’s villa. He described it as ‘bright eye of peninsulas
and islands.’ The translation from the Latin by F.W. Cornish
The Two Madrigals, although they sound rather advanced and convoluted
are actually meant to be ‘nonsense songs.’ Certainly, the words
do not need to be taken too seriously and the rather dark music
can be taken tongue in cheek.
The Three Nonsense Songs are settings of words by Edward Lear,
'There was an old lady of France', 'There
was an old person of Cromer' and 'There was an
old man in a tree'. These are well contrived little songs
that would make an ideal encore to any choral concert. They
were written for the Dorian Singers in 1956. These songs balance
musical interest with humour and are leavened with a touch of
Three short pieces by Mátyás Seiber’s friends are included on
this CD as a kind of ‘bonus’. The first is the ‘Soldier’s Farewell’
by Erich Itor Kahn, who was a close friend of the composers
during his Frankfurt years. Kahn also fled from Nazism to a
new life in New York. Alan Gibbs’ ‘Gloria’ is an attractive
miniature that was composed in memory of Seiber for the choir
of the Eothen School. Finally Zoltan Kodaly’s ‘Media Vita in
morte sumus’ was composed for the Seiber memorial concert held
on 19 November 1960. It is a beautiful piece that reflects the
Latin text: it deserves to be better known.
Seiber’s Three Graces were composed for the Canford
School of Music in 1958. All three are less than a minute long;
however there is a dignity about these pieces that is way in
excess of their duration.
The final piece on this CD is a setting of a poem by J. Ringelnatz,
'Zwei Schweinekarbonaden' or ‘Two Pork Chops.’
Listeners will detect the barber-shop jazz-like parody that
was to become so famous in the performances of the King’s Singers.
The singing in all these choral songs is beyond reproach. The
programme is well thought out and includes a good balance between
‘fun’ pieces and works that are profound and demanding. The
liner notes are helpful including the introduction by the composer’s
daughter Julia and the ‘analysis’ by the Alan Gibbs. Additionally
there is a short note by the conductor, Howard Williams.
The repertoire is largely new to me, and I guess that this will
be the case for many readers of this review. However, virtually
every piece is interesting and deserving of our attention. Once
again, it proves that there are huge stores of undiscovered
music just waiting for enterprising record companies like SOMM
and adventurous performers to find. Finally, Mátyás Seiber is
another example of an émigré composer (others being Egon Wellesz,
Hans Gál and Roberto Gerhard) that demand the attention of all
lovers of British music. Let us hope that there is plenty more
Seiber in the offing.
also review by Rob Barnett