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Jessica Duchen
Friday 2nd April 2010
Seiber Space!
Seiber father & daughter Morley 2005

Here's one musical anniversary that's been buried under the juggernauts of various other composers... 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Matyas Seiber, who was probably the UK's most sought-after composition teacher but was tragically killed in a car crash at the age of 55. Above, a photo from his centenary celebrations in 2005: his daughter, Julia Seiber Boyd, surveys the poster based on Gerard Hoffnung's affectionate caricature.

On Tuesday evening (6th April) at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Covent Garden we are holding a special anniversary event in which I'm chairing a panel comprising Julia herself and two of Seiber's pupils, composers Hugh Wood and Alan Gibbs, to explore and celebrate his life and work. Tickets are free, but you need to book in advance via the HCC.

To say Seiber was a 'musical chameleon' isn't saying enough: I can think of few other composers with quite such a mind-boggling range of styles, all of them crafted up to the nines. Born in Hungary, he was a pupil of Kodaly and toured with him to collect Hungarian folk songs; Kodaly's influence is more than clear in his early works. In 1927, his Serenade for wind sextet was entered for a Budapest competition; when it did not win first prize Kodály and Bartók both resigned from the jury in protest.

That same year Seiber became the world's first professor of jazz, in Frankfurt. This endeavour was cut short when the Nazis came to power, and Seiber, who was Jewish, moved to Britain, where his many musical activities included writing the music for, amongst other movie projects, the animated film of Animal Farm, conducting the Dorian Singers, working for the music publisher Schott's, teaching at Morley College, helping Hungarian composers affected by the 1956 Revolution get an artistic foothold in the UK - including Ligeti - and writing jazz material for John Dankworth. Under the pseudonym GS Mathis he composed short pieces of jazz and a book about how to learn the accordion.

Meanwhile he set words from James Joyce's Ulysses - possibly his finest work, it's due out soon in a BBC recording on CD - and took to Serialism in a big way. Julia tells me that his correspondence features letters to and from almost all the great musical figures of the day. He even wrote a popular song, 'By the Fountains of Rome', that made it to the Top Twenty in 1956 and won him the Ivor Novello Prize. Perhaps the question is not so much "what did he do?" as "what didn't he?"

In a nice full-circle-turning coincidence, Hugh Wood was one of my teachers. I used to be absolutely terrified of his fugue class! Alan's son, Robert, is a wonderful violinist and leader of the Birmingham Royal Ballet's Sinfonia. Julia is the chairperson of the Cambridge-Szeged Society, which twins Britain's gorgeous old university town with Hungary's and is a focal point for celebrations of Hungarian culture in the area. 

Here is a section from Animal Farm, which dates from 1954 - an extremely interesting assignment for an exiled Hungarian in what turned out to be two years before the uprising. In this extract, the animals burn the accoutrements of their oppression under the rule of Farmer Jones, then go in to explore his house and subsequently set out to create their supposed new utopia... The spoof Soviet anthem they sing around the bonfire must have been one of the Dorian Singers' odder assignments, and the light touch of the score plus the utter precision of coordination between music and image is absolutely masterful. Seiber himself is conducting. Enjoy. The rest of the movie is on Youtube too.


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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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