Mátyás György Seiber (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈmaːcaːʃ ˈɟørɟ ˈʃɛjbɛr]; 4 May 1905 – 24 September 1960) was a Hungarian-born 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, film and lighter music.

Early life

Seiber was born in Budapest. His mother, Berta Patay was a reputable pianist and teacher, so the young Seiber gained considerable knowledge on that instrument first. At the age of ten, he began to learn to play the cello. After attending the grammar school, where he was regarded as 'outstanding' in Mathematics and Latin, according to the almanacs of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music between 1918 and 1925 he studied cello and composition, 1921-1925 composition with Zoltán Kodály. As a degree work, he wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (in A minor). [1]


He toured Hungary with Zoltán Kodály, collecting folk songs, and built on the research of Kodály and Bartók, providing the vocal setting of many nations’ folksongs. He developed his interest in medieval plainchant as well.

In 1925, Seiber accepted a teaching position at a private music school in Frankfurt. In 1926, he made an unexpected decision: he hired himself on a ship that was voyaging to North and South America to play the cello in its orchestra. There he became acquainted with the music of "black America": jazz.[2]

In 1928 he became director of the jazz department at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, which offered the first academic jazz courses anywhere.[3] He considered reaching disengaged and free rhythm as a destination of studies. It is necessary to be instructed – as he writes – as the art music of the twentieth century requires proficiency in rhythm largely (mentioning the music of Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith as examples). His text book Schule für Jazz-Schlagzeug was written in 1929, that is 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 he was not able to settle there; he worked as a music referent in the Soviet Union for two years but he was not employed there after that.[4]

Seiber emigrated to England in 1935 and settled in London, after his marriage in Caterham, became a British subject in 1935.[5] He taught composition and cello privately while working as a consultant of 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 respected teacher of composition, music aesthetics and music theory. Several of his students went on to become eminent musicians themselves, including Peter Racine Fricker, Don Banks, Anthony Milner, Hugh Wood, Malcolm Lipkin, John Exton, Wally Stott (who later became Angela Morley) and Barry Gray. During this period, he created and trained his own choir, the Dorian Singers.

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 tenorPeter 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, another Hungarian émigré.

In 1960 he was invited to do a lecture tour in South Africa and he died there in Kruger National Park as a 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 jazz, Bartók and Schoenberg.

His output includes Ulysses (1947), a cantata on words by James Joyce (he recorded another Joyce-related work, Three Fragments from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", for Decca shortly before his death); a clarinet concertino; scores to animated films, including Animal Farm (1954); a setting of the Scottish "poet and tragedian" William McGonagall's work, The Famous Tay Whale (written for the second of Gerard Hoffnung's music festivals); three string quartets; and choral arrangements of Hungarian and Yugoslav folk songs. [7] He also wrote one opera, Eva spielt mit Puppen (1934),[8] and the ballet The Invitation. His composition for violin, Fantasia concertante was recorded by Andre Gertler.

His 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. [9]

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 which name he wrote for John Dankworth.

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). [10]

Alternative name spellings

When searching for Seiber, it should be noted that there are articles with references to Seiber as Seyber and Mathis as Matthis.

Compositions (selected)

Orchestral Music

  • Fantasia Concertante for violin and string orchestra (1943; 17 mins.; Ars Viva Verlag, Mainz ; BL)
  • Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra (1951; 15 mins.)
  • Notturno for horn and string orchestra (1944) (8.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Besardo Suite No. 2 (1942; 14 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Elegy for viola and small orchestra (1954; 8 mins.)
  • Tre Pezzi for cello and orchestra (1957; 20 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra (with John Dankworth) (1959; 14 min.; BL)

Instrumental and Chamber Music

  • String Quartet No. 1 (1925; 18 mins.; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1935; 22 mins.; BL)
  • String Quartet No. 3, Quartettolirico (1951; (23 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Divertimento for Clarinet and string Quartet ( 1925; Schott)
  • Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quintet (1958; 6.5 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Violin Sonata (1960; S chott; BL)
  • Concert Piece for violin and piano (1954; 8 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Serenade for six wind instruments (1925; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen ; BL )
  • 2 Jazzolettes for 2 saxophone, 2 &2 .(1929 and 1932; Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen ; BL )
  • Sonata da Camera (6 mins.)
  • Fantasia per Flauto, Corno e Quartetto d'archi (1956; Edizioni Suvini Zerboni, Milano)

Vocal Works with Orchestra

  • Ulysses : cantata for tenor solo, choir and orchestra (1947; 45 mins.; Schott; BL)
  • Three Fragments from the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (?? min.; Schott; BL)

A cappella Choral Music

  • Missa Brevis (1924, revised 1950; 14 mins.; Curwen; BL)

Songs for Solo Voice/Choral and Accompaniment

  • To Poetry (1952; 18 mins.; BL)
  • The Great Tay Whale ( BL)
  • The Greek Folk Songs (11 mins.)
  • The French Songs (7 mins.)
  • Medieval French Songs
  • Petőfi Songs (4 Hungarian Folk Songs) (12 m ins.)
  • The Yugoslav Folk Songs
  • Three Hungarian Folk Songs
  • Lear Nonsense Songs


  • Eva spielt mit Puppen (1934)
  • The Invitation (1960; BL)

Selected filmography

Further reading

  • Karolyi, Otto. Modern British Music.: The Second British Musical Renaissance, from Elgar to P. Maxwell Davies. Associated University Presses, 1994.
  • Leach, Gerald. British Composer Profiles. A Biographical Dictionary and Chronology of Past British Composers 1800–1979. British Music Society, 1980.
  • Lyman, Darryl. Great Jews in Music. J. D. Publishers, 1986.
  • Sadie, Stanley (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.
  • Wood, Hugh; Cooke, Mervyn. "Seiber, Mátyás (György)", Grove Music Online, ed. Deane Root.