Mátyás Seiber grew up in Budapest. After attending the gymnasium, where he was regarded as ‘outstanding’ in Mathematics and Latin, he progressed to the Music Academy to study with Kodály. He developed his interest in medieval plainchant, and built on the research of Kodály and Bartók, providing vocal setting of many nations’ folksongs. He had a gift for languages. Many choirs benefited over the years from these lifelong interests.
While still in Hungary, he entered his 1925 Wind Sextet in a composition competition – with Kodály and Bartók on the jury. The opponents to the “progressive” music he personified did not allow him to win; furious, Bartók resigned from the jury.
In 1927 he left Hungary, and started lecturing in Frankfurt, with a reference from Kodály. There he inaugurated the first academic study of Jazz. In the mid-thirties, the Nazi disapproval of Jazz and Jews (however secular) entailed emigration.
After a period travelling as part of a ship’s string quartet, playing his first instrument, the cello, he settled in London in 1935. He taught musical appreciation at Morley College, at the invitation of Michael Tippett. Later, but while still at Morley College, he trained his own choir, The Dorian Singers, who disbanded only on his death.
He also became renowned for his teaching of composition, from home in Caterham, where he moved after marriage in 1946 to Lilla Bauer, another Hungarian émigré, a Ballet Jooss dancer. She trained with Laban, then lectured at Goldsmith’s College.
Seiber’s reputation as a teacher-composer attracted pupils from all over Europe, including Hugh Wood, Tony Gilbert, Peter Racine Fricker, (who regarded him as the foremost teacher of the century), Ingvar Lidholm, Hinner Bauch, and from Australia, Don Banks. Seiber’s works were performed at Cheltenham, at Venice, and other national and international Music Festivals. He was a founder member of the Society for Promotion of New Music, actively pursuing this throughout his life. He did much to bring Bartók’s work to public notice in Britain. His life and work linked and developed many diverse musical influences, from the Hungarian tradition of Bartók and Kodály, to Schoenberg and Serial Music, to jazz, folksong, film and lighter music, (rewarded by an Ivor Novello Prize for ‘By The Fountains of Rome’). A late collaboration with John Dankworth produced the ‘Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra’. His friendships and work associations embraced many soloists including Tibor Varga, Norbert Brainin, guitarists Julian Bream and John Williams, percussionist Jimmy Blades, folksinger Bert Lloyd, and Peter Pears. He also composed film music for his friends, the progressive animation couple Halas & Batchelor, the best known being ‘Animal Farm’. Other film scores included ‘A Town like Alice’. Some of his lighter music, especially dance accompaniments and for the accordion was published under the George S. Mathis pseudonym.
He was tragically killed in a car accident in South Africa while on a lecture tour in 1960. Kodály and Ligeti both composed pieces in memoriam. His widow continued to live in the same house in Caterham, in Surrey until her death in 2011; his daughter lives in Cambridge. As Hungary rediscovers its central role in Europe, we seek to commemorate a composer and teacher who contributed so significantly to British and Hungarian musical development of the 20th century.