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Mátyás Seiber

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Mátyás Seiber
Born4 May 1905
Died24 September 1960
United Kingdom

Mátyás György Seiber (Hungarian: [ˈmaːcaːʃ ˈʃaibɛr],[1] sometimes given as Matthis Seyber; 4 May 1905 – 24 September 1960) was a Hungarian-born British composer who lived and worked in the United Kingdom from 1935 onwards. His work linked many diverse musical influences, from the Hungarian tradition of Bartók and Kodály, to Schoenberg and serial music, to jazz, folk song, and lighter music.

Early life[edit]

Seiber was born in Budapest. His mother, Berta Patay was a reputed pianist and teacher, so the young Seiber gained considerable skill with that instrument first. At the age of ten, he began to learn to play the cello. After attending grammar school, where he was regarded as "outstanding" in mathematics and Latin according to the almanacs of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, he studied the cello and composition from 1918 to 1925, and composition with Zoltán Kodály from 1921 to 1925. For his degree, he wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (in A minor). Pieces composed at this time, such as the Serenade for Six Wind Instruments of 1925, show him combining traditional Hungarian folk tunes with the forms of Western art music.[2] He toured Hungary with Zoltán Kodály, collecting folk songs, and built on the research of Kodály and Béla Bartók. He also developed an interest in medieval plainchant.


In 1925, Seiber accepted a teaching position at a private music school. In 1926, he took a position to play the cello in the orchestra of a ship from to North and South America. This was where he became acquainted with jazz.

In 1928 he became director of the jazz department at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, which offered the first academic jazz courses anywhere.[3][4] His text book Schule für Jazz-Schlagzeug was written in 1929, as a practical summary of his theoretical requirements. Two of his articles of great importance were published in the journal Melos: "Jazz als Erziehungsmittel" (1928) and "Jazz-Instrumente, Jazz-Klang und Neue Musik" (1930). After the jazz department was closed by the Nazis in 1933, Seiber left Germany.

He returned to Hungary but did not settle there; he accepted a position of music referent in the Soviet Union for two years, but his employment was ended after that.

Seiber emigrated to England in 1935 and settled in London, after his marriage in Caterham, Surrey at 169 Stafford Road. He only became a British citizen after the war.[5] Seiber taught composition and cello privately while working as a consultant for the subsidiary of Schott in London and composed film music. Michael Tippett invited him to be a professor of composition at Morley College in London, and from 1942 he was on the staff there; he became a teacher of composition, music aesthetics, and music theory. His many students included Don Banks, John Exton, Peter Racine Fricker, Anthony Gilbert, Stanley Glasser, Michael Graubart, Barry Gray, Karel Janovický, Malcolm Lipkin, John McCarthy, John Meyer, Anthony Milner, Wally Stott (who later became Angela Morley) and Hugh Wood. During this period, he created and trained his choir, the Dorian Singers.

His friendships and work associations embraced many soloists, including Tibor Varga, Dennis Brain, Norbert Brainin, guitarists Julian Bream and John Williams, percussionist Jimmy Blades, folk singer Bert Lloyd, Max Rostal and tenor Peter Pears.[6]

He was a founder member of the Society for Promotion of New Music, actively promoting new music throughout his life. He was married to ballet dancer Lilla Bauer (1912–2011),[7] another Hungarian émigré. In 1960 he was invited to do a lecture tour in South Africa, but he died there in Kruger National Park as the result of a car accident. Kodály dedicated his choral work titled Media vita in morte sumus to the memory of his former student.


Seiber's music is eclectic in style, showing the influences of Bartók, Kodály, Schoenberg, serialism, jazz, and Hungarian folk song, and his output includes film and lighter music.[8] Often, individual pieces use a combination of these influences. For instance, the two Jazzolettes for wind and percussion (1929 and 1932, composed in Frankfurt) make liberal use of jazz effects and rhythms that displace the bar lines, but also show his first explorations of twelve-note techniques. His wartime, Fantasia concertante for violin and orchestra, premiered in 1945 and recorded by Andre Gertler, and the later work Permutationi a Cinque (1948) for wind ensemble, illustrate Seiber's very free use of serialism.[9] Permutationi a Cinque explicitly uses permutations of motifs that eventually come together to reveal a twelve-tone series - but it is all done with lightness and humour.[2]

Seiber's vocal output includes the large scale cantata Ulysses (1947) on words by James Joyce, another Joyce-related work, Three Fragments from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", and choral arrangements of Hungarian and Yugoslav folk songs. He also wrote one opera, Eva spielt mit Puppen (1934),[10] and the ballet The Invitation. Other works include the two orchestral Besardo suites,[9] a clarinet concertino, three strings quartets, and scores to animated films produced by Halas & Batchelor, including Animal Farm (1954).[11] The substantial Sonata for violin and piano, a commission for the Cheltenham Festival, was completed just before his death in 1960.

Two comic operas, A Palágyi Pekek and Balaton, were composed for the Hungarian theatre in London, the "Londoni Pódium". A Palágyi Pékek, (libretto, György Mikes) (1943), was the first collaboration of Mátyás Seiber and George Mikes. Balaton, (libretto, György Mikes) (1944), as George Mikes has reported, was aired during the war by the BBC and, after the end of the war even made it to Budapest. [12] A setting of the Scottish "poet and tragedian" William McGonagall's work, The Famous Tay Whale was written for the second of Gerard Hoffnung's music festivals in 1958.

Seiber used a pseudonym for his jazz works and popular music: G. S. Mathis or George Mathis (a rearrangement of his name using Anglicised forms); under this name, he wrote for John Dankworth, most notably 1959's Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra.[13] In 1956 he was awarded the inaugural Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically for "By the Fountains of Rome," which was a hit that year in the UK Single Charts, making it to the Top Twenty. (The lyrics were by Norman Newell, and it was sung by David Hughes). [14]

Compositions (selected)[edit]

Seiber's compositions at Schott Music[15] and the British Library.[16]


  • Sinfonietta for string orchestra (1925/1964) (from String Quartet No. 1, transcribed for string orchestra by Antal Doráti; Schott)
  • Besardo-Suite No. 1 (1940)
  • Besardo-Suite No. 2 for strings (1942; 14 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Fantasia concertante for violin and string orchestra (1943; 17 mins.; Ars Viva Verlag, Mainz; Schott; BL)
  • Notturno for horn and string orchestra (1944) (8.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra (1951; 15 mins.; Schott)
  • Elegy for viola and small orchestra (1954; 8 mins.; Schott)
  • Tre Pezzi for cello and orchestra (1957; 20 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Improvisations for jazzband and orchestra (with John Dankworth) (1959; 10 min.; Schott; BL)

Instrumental and chamber music[edit]

  • Divertimento for clarinet and string Quartet (1925; Schott)
  • Serenade for six wind instruments (1925; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 1 (1925; 18 mins.; BL)
  • Two Jazzolettes for 2 saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, and drums (1929 and 1932; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1935; 22 mins.; BL)
  • Sonata da Camera (ca. 1948, 15 mins.)
  • String Quartet No. 3, Quartetto lirico (1951; 23 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Concert Piece for violin and piano (1954; 8 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Fantasia per flauto, corno e quartetto d'archi (1956; Edizioni Suvini Zerboni, Milano)
  • Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quintet (1958; 6.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1960; 20 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Introduction and Allegro, originally cello and accordion, arranged for clarinet, cello and piano (Schott)[17]

Vocal works with orchestra[edit]

  • Ulysses, cantata for tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra (1947; 45 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Cantata Secularis: the Four Seasons for mixed choir and orchestra (text from Carmina Burana) (1949-1952; 20 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Three Fragments from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce: chamber cantata for speaker, mixed choir and instrumental ensemble (18 mins.; Schott; BL)

A cappella choral music[edit]

  • Missa Brevis (1924, revised 1950; 14 mins.; Curwen; BL)
  • Three Nonsense Songs (lyrics by Edward Lear; 1956)

Songs for solo voice/choral and accompaniment[edit]

  • Three Morgenstern Songs (1929) for voice and clarinet
  • To Poetry for voice and piano (1952; 18 mins.; BL)
  • The Famous Tay Whale (text by William McGonagall)(BL)
  • Four Greek Folk Songs for high voice and string orchestra or string quartet (11 mins.; Schott)
  • Four French Folk Songs for high voice and guitar (7 mins.; Schott)
  • Four medieval french songs for voice, viola d’amore (or viola), viola da gamba (or violoncello) and guitar (Schott)
  • Petőfi Songs (4 Hungarian Folk Songs) (12 mins.)
  • Yugoslav Folk-Songs mixed choir (SATB) a cappella (Boosey & Hawkes / Schott)
  • Three Hungarian Folk Songs
  • The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (1957) for voice and piano (Schott)


  • Eva spielt mit Puppen (1934)
  • The Invitation for orchestra (1960; Schott, BL)

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ https://www.classiccat.net/seiber_m/biography.php
  2. ^ a b Matyas Seiber - Traveller between Worlds, Royal College of Music concert, 11 November 2020
  3. ^ "This was actually the first academic program for the study of jazz anywhere in the world." Kathryn Smith Bowers, "East Meets West. Contributions of Mátyás Seiber to Jazz in Germany." Jazz and the Germans, (Ed. Michael J. Budds), Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2002, ISBN 978-1576470725, S. 122.
  4. ^ See article and references here: Timeline of jazz education
  5. ^ Florian Scheding (18 September 2017). "Problematic Tendencies: Émigré Composers in London, 1933–1945". p. 253. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  6. ^ "Schott Music".
  7. ^ Lilla Bauer, National Portrait Gallery
  8. ^ Wood, Hugh and Cooke, Mervyn. 'Seiber, Mátyás (György)' in Grove Music Online
  9. ^ a b 'Sieber: Orchestral Works'. Hanssler HC21043 (2021), reviewed at MusicWeb International
  10. ^ Opera Glass
  11. ^ The Seiber Centenary: 2005 and Beyond by Julia Seiber Boyd ICSM Online Journal 09 August 2005
  12. ^ Fairclough, Pauline (17 February 2016). Twentieth-Century Music and Politics: Essays in Memory of Neil Edmunds edited by Pauline Fairclough Page 226., 222., 225. Routledge. ISBN 9781317005803.
  13. ^ Hair, Graham. Matyas Seiber’s Improvisations for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, research paper
  14. ^ Seiber Boyd, Julia. "The Seiber Centenary: 2005 and Beyond", Suppressed Music, 9 August 2005.
  15. ^ https://www.schott-music.com/en/catalogsearch/result/index/?cat=3&product_list_limit=100&q=Mátyás%20%20Seiber&product_list_order=name&product_list_dir=asc
  16. ^ https://bll01.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/discovery/search?query=any,contains,Mátyás%20Seiber&tab=LibraryCatalog&search_scope=Not_BL_Suppress&vid=44BL_INST:BLL01&lang=en&offset=0
  17. ^ Recorded on Adrift, Delphine Trio, TRPTK TTK0113 (2024)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]