Mátyás SEIBER (1905 - 1960)
Choral Music A Cappella: Yugoslav, Hungarian and Nonsense Songs and other choral music
Choir of the 21st Century/Howard Williams
rec. Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London NW3, 14-15 October 2011. DDD
Track-listing at end of review
Refugee composers have added to the genetic musical resources of the British Isles. Emigrants have returned the favour. The emigrants include W.H. Bell, Edgar Bainton, Erik Chisholm and Healy Willan. Among the long list of immigrants we can count Franz Reizenstein, Roberto Gerhard, Egon Wellesz, Berthold Goldschmidt and the composer whose reputation is the beneficiary of this disc.
Hungarian composer Seiber was born in Budapest. He studied with Kodály and accompanied the older composer in expeditions to collect in folk songs. In 1928 Seiber was appointed director of the jazz department at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. In 1933 he arrived in England in flight from the Nazi regime. He made London his home and became a British subject in 1935.
Eleven folksy songs are covered by the Yugoslav Folk Songs (SATB, 1942), the Hungarian Folk Songs (SSAA, 1950) and the Two Soldiers’ Songs (TTBB, 1932). The music is pretty much in the ripe English style mapped out by Grainger, Geoffrey Bush, E J Moeran and RVW. Seiber brings out the full panoply of effects including humming and ticking ‘lah-lah’ word patterning. Fairy Tale is positively Delian but then so are many of these eleven songs.
The 1924 Missa Brevis is typically pure in the pristine medieval tradition espoused by Holst and RVW – the latter in his own Mass. The Sanctus is grand in volume and passionate in its devotions. Sirmio starts in the same place but steps beyond to the extent that the setting ends in a representation of chuckling laughter through Catullus’s Latin text. The Three Graces, though dating from only two years before his death, belong to the same aesthetic region as the Missa Brevis.
The two witty German language madrigals are Morgenstern settings. From the same year as Sirmio come the Three Nonsense Songs with flighty, rhythmically bladed and imaginatively bedecked settings of three limericks. Out of the same style guide comes the jazzy delicacy of Zwei Schweinekarbonaden where fun is made of the famous Walton Belshazzar’s Feast words Mene Tekel Upharsin.
This collection has been most naturally recorded. The music is in the best and sweetest tradition of English choral singing as is the performance which places emphasis not only on contour and dynamic but also on enunciation. Reverberation suffices to impart a lively atmosphere but is held back enough to avoid blurring of words.
The Soldier’s Farewell by Erich Itor Kahn (1905-1956) is a passionately entwined and faintly melancholic piece. Alan Gibbs’ own Gloria in Excelsis is a short and rapturous piece. It was composed in Seiber’s memory in 1962. Kodaly wrote many works for a cappella choir. Media Vita in morte sumus is gently and tenderly done with rising ramps of ecstatic sound. It too was written to commemorate Seiber.
Texts and translations are printed in full in the booklet which also supplies notes by Julia Seiber Boyd and Seiber pupil, Alan Gibbs. These address the subject of the composer and his music. Seiber’s other pupils include Don Banks, Ingvar Lidholm, Peter Racine Fricker (whose Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Seiber’s memory), Hugh Wood, Anthony Gilbert and Malcolm Lipkin.
Seiber recordings have not been numerous but the store of Seiber on CD has gradually increased. The three string quartets are on Delphian. The Quartetto Lirico was issued in EMI’s British Composer series. There’s a chamber music anthology on Hungaroton. Easy to overlook that Australian Eloquence have included the 1960 Decca Three Fragments from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Peter Pears (reciter) and the Dorian Singers and Melos Ensemble conducted by the composer on 480 2152.
We can hope that the small handful of Seiber broadcasts including Ulysses might be issued on commercial CD but securing licensing rights can be a recalcitrant task.
A Seiber choral collection to carry these songs into our affections and into the singing repertoire of choirs across the world.

Rob Barnett

Carries these songs into our affections and into the singing repertoire of choirs across the world.

Yugoslav Folk Songs (SATB, 1942)
[1] 1. The Unfaithful Lover 1:01
[2] 2. Handsome Mirko 0:59
[3] 2a. Eighteen Shining Buttons 1:36
[4] 3. Heaven Above 2:15
[5] 4. Hussars 0:42
[6] 4a. Fairy Tale 2:54
Three Hungarian Folk Songs (SSAA,1950)
[7] 1. The Handsome Butcher 1:04
[8] 2. Apple, apple 1:55
[9] 3. The Old Woman 0:44
Two Soldiers’ Songs (TTBB, 1932)
[10] Spring (Tavasz) 1:01
[11] Farewell (Búcsú) 3:15
Missa Brevis (with plainsong)
[12] Kyrie 3:27
[13] Gloria (plainsong) 3:37
[14] Credo (plainsong) 4:11
[15] Sanctus 1:14
[16] Benedictus 1:41
[17] Agnus Dei 3:58
[18] Sirmio (1956) 3:08
Two Madrigals (SATB, 1927-29)
[19] Ghost (Gespenst) 3:28
[20] The Problem (Das Problem) 1:42
Three Nonsense Songs (SATB, 1956)
[21] There was an old lady of France 0:55
[22] There was an old person of Cromer 1:03
[23] There was an old man in a tree 0:58
[24] Soldier’s Farewell (SATB, 1960) – Kahn 3:15
[25] Gloria in Excelsis (SSAA, 1962) – Gibbs 1:10
[26] Media Vita in morte sumus (SATB, 1960) - Kodály 4:27
Three Graces (SATB, 1958)
[27] I 0:42
[28] II 0:51
[29] III 0:56
[30] Zwei Schweinekarbonaden (TTB, 1930) 1:58