Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960)
Choral Music - a cappella
Yugoslav Folk Songs -SATB (1942) [9:27]
Three Hungarian Folk Songs SSAA (1950) [3:43]
Two Soldier’s Songs TTBB (1932) [4:16]
Missa Brevis SATB (1924) [18:08]
Sirmio SATB (1956) [3:08]
Two Madrigals SATB (1927-29) [5:10]
Three Nonsense Songs SATB (1956) [2:56]
Erich Itor KAHN (1905-1956) ‘Soldier’s Farwell’ SATB (1960) [3:15]
Alan GIBBS (b.1932) Gloria in Excelsis SSAA (1962) [1:10]
Zoltan KODÁLY (1882-1967) Media Vita in morte sumus SATB (1960) [4:27]
Three Graces SATB (1958) [2:29]
Zwei Schweinekarbonaden TTB (1930) [1:58]
Choir of the 21st Century/Howard Williams
rec. 14-15 October 2011, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London NW3
SOMM SOMMCD 0105 [60:05]
See further review
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 By the 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 is excellent.
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 pathos.
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.
  John France
Interesting and deserving of our attention. Let us hope that there is plenty more Seiber in the offing.