Mátyás Seiber - Traveller Between Worlds

Drawing of Mátyás Seiber by Milein Cosman, credit: Royal College of Music
Author: Beth Snyder 

It is difficult to imagine a 20th-century composer more shaped by travel and movement than Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960). As a result, Seiber’s is a musical creativity that resists explanation according to national categories and narratives of rootedness. He was a polyglot, both musically and linguistically, who demonstrated mastery of a variety of musical styles. And it is largely due to his musical multi-lingualism and mobility that his work has been unjustly neglected.

That said, many who personally encountered Seiber here recognized his remarkable impact on British musical culture. Composer Reginald Smith Brindle, for instance, has claimed that, ‘If any man heaved up this country out of the double ruts of neoclassicism and nationalism, it was Seiber. He was pioneer, innovator and teacher, all rolled into one.’1

Mátyás Seiber’s legacy was fêted here in Great Britain in 2005 with celebrations surrounding the centenary of the composer’s birth, which involved concerts at Morley College, Leighton House and the Hungarian Culture Centre. With the ‘Music, Migration and Mobility’ project we seek to continue and expand upon that earlier work, assisted by the generous contribution of the composer’s daughter, Julia Seiber-Boyd, who has guided our research and provided invaluable materials pertaining to her father’s musical career. We began this work of re-considering Seiber’s musical creativity with a concert of his chamber music performed by talented student musicians of the Royal College of Music, entitled ‘Mátyás Seiber: Traveler Between Worlds,’ and will continue to explore his legacy in future project outputs. Stay tuned.


Mátyás Seiber - Traveller between worlds. Mini documentary and concert, filmed on November 11, 2020. The concert was curated and introduced by Norbert Meyn. Co-director: Simon Channing. Programme: 07:00 Mátyás Seiber Serenade for Six Wind Instruments  22:04 Mátyás Seiber Permutationi a Cinque 30:56 Mátyás Seiber Three Morgenstern Songs for voice and clarinet 36:20 Mátyás Seiber The Owl and the Pussycat for voice, violin and guitar 42:32 Mátyás Seiber 2 Jazzolettes


Mátyás Seiber was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Budapest, at that time one of the central hubs of the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. Like many residents of Budapest in the early twentieth century, Seiber was equally fluent in German and Hungarian. He would later demonstrate talents as a true polyglot, speaking upwards of ten languages—a facility that would serve him well in his travels.

His mother was a piano teacher and Seiber became quite skilled at that instrument under her tutelage. By the age of ten, however, he focused his training on the cello. From the ages of twelve to nineteen, he completed his secondary schooling whilst also training at the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy—studying cello with Adolf Schiffer and composition with Zoltan Kodály.2

When Seiber was a teenager, Hungary became an independent nation, with many there promoting a fierce and narrowly-defined nationalism that excluded Seiber because of his Jewishness. Seiber’s formative engagements with nationalism were, thus, at times quite fraught. Because of his heritage he was, in the words of musicologist Florian Scheding, ‘Othered by the nation into which he had been born.’But at other times, those engagements were quite productive. As a member of Kodály’s 1925 composition class, Seiber was encouraged to collect and transcribe Hungarian folk tunes that would form the basis of a number of his early compositions such as his Három Magyar népdal, an arrangement of three Hungarian folk songs for piano (1922).4

Photograph of Zoltán Kodály’s composition class of 1925, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Photograph of Zoltán Kodály’s composition class of 1925, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Seiber’s two most significant early works, the String Quartet No. 1 (1924) and the Serenade for wind sextet (1925), borrow more freely from Hungarian folk music models than those early folk songs for piano. In these more mature works, Seiber focuses on the pentatonicism of those models without relying on actual folk materials. String Quartet No. 1, completed whilst Seiber was still a student, marks the first publication of his work, and marries pentatonicism with Classical sonata form. Seiber’s Serenade (RCM video, 7:00) an essay in lyricism, once again marries elements of Hungarian folk idioms with Classical form. The composer submitted this latter piece to a composition contest in Budapest shortly after its completion. When the piece did not win, despite jury member Bela Bartók’s insistence in its superiority to its competition, the famous composer left the jury in protest.5 

Frankfurt and Other Travels—1925-1935

There is some debate as to whether Seiber felt compelled to leave Budapest because of rising anti-Semitism in Hungary following the seizure of power by the proto-fascist Horthy regime,6 or if he was drawn to Germany by the lure of employment—namely a teaching post at a private music school.7 In either case, Seiber left Budapest for Frankfurt after the completion of his music studies in 1925.

After some months in Frankfurt, the composer joined the music ensemble (as cellist) of an ocean liner making transatlantic journeys. As New York City was a common port of call for his ship, it is likely that Seiber came into some contact during this time (though perhaps only superficially) with American jazz musicians.

Mátyás Seiber taking a photograph of himself, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Mátyás Seiber taking a photograph of himself, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

He returned to Frankfurt in 1927, and, in collaboration with Bernhard Sekles—then Director of the renowned Hoch Conservatoire—Seiber established a jazz course at Hoch, the first such course to be offered at a European conservatoire. The course was publicized in November of 1927 and began in January of the following year. It was met with a veritable firestorm of opposition in the German press. Some of that opposition centred on the respective merits of high and low cultures, but much of it explicitly trafficked in racist diatribe—directed at both Sekles and Seiber (both Jewish) and the African-American progenitors of the style.

Regardless of the scandal, the course went ahead without impediment, and involved private lessons on one of six instruments: saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion or banjo. Seiber taught jazz piano as well as jazz ensemble and jazz instrumentation. The student ensemble performed for the first time on 3 March 1929, and frequently thereafter, with programmes featuring Gershwin and arrangements of Tin Pan Alley songs alongside music by Igor Stravinsky and Kurt Weill.

Concert programme for Hoch Conservatoire student jazz ensemble, 3 March 1929, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Concert programme for Hoch Conservatoire student jazz ensemble, 3 March 1929, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Concert programme for Hoch Conservatoire student jazz ensemble, 20 February 1930, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Concert programme for Hoch Conservatoire student jazz ensemble, 20 February 1930, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

The juxtaposition of Stravinsky with Gershwin and other popular music standards may seem odd, but was perfectly consistent with Seiber’s approach to teaching jazz; he thought that the ability to perform jazz rhythms was essential training for musicians wishing to tackle the equally complex musics of Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith.8

Seiber also composed jazz-inflected pieces for the student ensemble, most notably his two Jazzolettes (1929, 1932) (RCM video, 42:32). Both of these pieces display Seiber’s love of jazz effects and complex rhythmic motives. The second of the two Jazzolettes also connects with another of his burgeoning compositional interests—serialism.

Mátyás Seiber is believed to have been one of the first composers outside Arnold Schoenberg’s immediate circle to experiment with serial techniques. His first serial pieces—based on a seven-note row—were Seiber’s Three Morgenstern Songs for voice and clarinet (1929) (RCM video, 30:56), which set the texts of a German poet, Christian Morgenstern, who was influenced by the English nonsense literary tradition. Jazzolette no. 2 marks Seiber’s first twelve-tone composition and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his most orthodox experiment with serialism, opening with a clear statement of the row in the trumpet and immediate inversion in the trombone—an opening gambit that evokes not just Schoenberg but also the call-and-response gestures often associated with jazz and other Black musics.

Seiber’s productive years in Frankfurt were cut short on 10 April 1933 by an act of ethnic cleansing occurring shortly after Hitler’s ascent to power. Seiber was unceremoniously fired from his post at the Hoch Conservatoire alongside Sekles and all other Jewish musicians teaching at the school.

Photograph of 7 April 1933 Reichsgesetzblatt, credit—Austrian National Library

Photograph of 7 April 1933 Reichsgesetzblatt, credit—Austrian National Library

By that autumn, Seiber had returned to Budapest, where he composed his String Quartet no. 2 (1935), a serial piece clearly influenced by Schoenberg and his pupil Alban Berg, but which also speaks of his interests in jazz and popular musics (its second movement tellingly titled, ‘Intermezzo alla Blues’).

Emigration to Great Britain and the War Years—1935-1945

Photograph of Mátyás Seiber, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Mátyás Seiber, credit - private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

The composer ran into profound difficulties re-establishing himself in Budapest, and was pushed to migrate to Britain, arriving in London in 1935. Seiber’s facility with languages and diverse musical talents eased his transition into British musical life, and he took on an array of jobs and other projects in the years leading up to the Second World War. He taught at the Royal Academy of Accordionists in Store Street, arranging and composing pieces for accordion orchestra under the pseudonym G. Matthis.9 He obtained a post as a music advisor for publisher Schott. He advised philosopher Theodor Adorno on the philosopher’s (largely unrealized) jazz project.10 And he lectured, on jazz at the Music of our Time Congress in 1938, and on various topics for the BBC—first on the institution’s European Service and (by July 1943) on the Home Service. Through his post at Schott, he met composer and Morley College Music Director, Michael Tippett, who hired Seiber to teach composition at the college, a post he would hold from 1942 until his untimely death in 1960.

Interview with Alexander Goehr

Yet, like many migrant musicians of the time, Seiber struggled to find outlets for his compositional creativity. The marginalization of Seiber’s compositional work at the BBC has been movingly documented by musicologist Florian Scheding in his Musical Journeys.11 Seiber also struggled to get his works performed in the concert hall, with the first concert comprised entirely of his music taking place only after the war’s end (at the Wigmore Hall on 3 December 1945).

Seiber partially mitigated this difficulty with the foundation in 1943—in collaboration with fellow migrant musician Francis Chagrin—of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music (CPNM), later renamed the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM). The early goal of the CPNM—which included the likes of Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams—was to promote new, and often avant-garde, composition in Britain via the organization of small-scale recitals of pieces. After extensive debate by invited composers, pieces considered worthy of further hearing would be promoted via a Recommended List sent to publishers, concert programmers and broadcasters. The CPNM did not focus primarily on the works of migrant musicians, but Seiber and fellow émigré composers Berthold Goldschmidt and Franz Reizenstein had a number of pieces performed in the 1940s as a direct result of interventions by the Committee.

Seiber also began composing a large amount of incidental music for radio and film during these years, developing a fruitful relationship with animators Halas & Batchelor (a British firm founded by Hungarian émigré John Halas and his wife Joy Batchelor). In 1945, Seiber provided the music for The Magic Canvas, a ten-minute animated short directed by Halas and co-produced with Batchelor and Peter Földes. The music—performed by the progressive Blech Quartet with flautist Gareth Morris and Dennis Brain on horn—revisits Seiber’s Frankfurt experiments with dodecaphony and abstraction, compositional preoccupations Seiber had, by necessity, largely left behind upon his arrival in Britain.

The Magic Canvas (1948)

Postwar Britain—1945-1960

Mátyás Seiber reading to his daughter Julia, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

Mátyás Seiber reading to his daughter Julia, credit—private collection of Julia Seiber-Boyd

In 1946 Seiber married fellow émigré and ballet dancer, Lilla Bauer, and settled in Caterham where the two raised a daughter, Julia, born in 1949. Seiber continued to work at Morley College, teaching composition and leading The Dorian Singers, a group he founded in 1945. He also taught composition lessons at his home, training many who would become the next generation of British composers—Hugh Wood, Don Banks and Peter Racine Fricker, to name a few. Banks has said of Seiber’s pedagogical ingenuity: ‘He inspired us all by his enthusiasm, and by his curiousity in finding out how things really worked in a piece of music. He placed the utmost importance on teaching pupils to think for themselves and to find their own solutions; thus a student’s own style was not interfered with…and his emphasis on analysis in depth was a rarity (and possibly still is) in the training of young composers in this country.’13

In the years following the Second World War, Seiber also continued to write light music—even composing a chart-topper, ‘By the Fountains of Rome’ in 1956—as well as music for television and film. He further developed his relationship with Halas & Batchelor, collaborating on the animators’ most well-known work, Animal Farm (1954).

Mátyás Seiber with John Halas, Joy Batchelor and John Reed laughing and planning together

Mátyás Seiber with John Halas, Joy Batchelor and John Reed, credit: The Halas & Batchelor Collection, BFI Special Collections, used with the permission of Vivien Halas

He also continued exploring jazz, chiefly as a lecturer on the topic, but also via a collaboration with English composer Sir John Dankworth on his 1959 Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra.

Perhaps most significantly, Seiber delved deeper into vocal genres, composing one of his most enduring works, the cantata Ulysses (1947) based on selections from James Joyce’s complex and challenging text. The piece premiered at Morley College in 1949 under the baton of fellow migrant Walter Goehr, and has been described by colleague and friend Mosco Carner as the apex of Seiber’s explorations of the evocative and emotive in music and ‘the most outstanding work of his career’ to date.14 (He would return to Joyce in 1957 with his Three Fragments from ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.) Seiber also further explored the musical humour and quirkiness present from the beginnings of his compositional career (one thinks of String Quartet No. 1 and the Jazzolettes) in his setting of nonsense poet Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1956) (video, 36:20), which resulted in yet another ingenious collaboration with Halas & Batchelor. 

The Owl and the Pussy Cat (1952)

A further vocal work, his To Poetry song cycle (1953), was written for and premiered by famed tenor Peter Pears and displays a subtle and eclectic diatonicism, proving Seiber was no dogmatic serialist, but rather a master of a variety of musical languages and techniques.

Seiber also continued to write instrumental works, including his Concert Piece for violin and piano (1954), which both Hugh Wood and music critic, fellow émigré and friend Hans Keller deemed Seiber’s masterpiece. Additionally, he wrote a third and final string quartet for the Amadeus Quartet, that once again married lyricism with dodecaphony. The ensemble fittingly premiered the work on 13 November 1951 in Frankfurt.

Even after Seiber became a British citizen in 1948, he continued to maintain ties to the Continent and beyond, participating in festivals of avant-garde music in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, as well as festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Palermo and Salzburg. Seiber even served as Vice President of the ISCM in the year leading up to his death. Indeed, it was during a lecture tour of South Africa in 1960 that Seiber’s life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident.

He was movingly memorialized in music by both his former teacher Kodály and friend György Ligeti, and mourned with a concert at the Wigmore Hall. Soon after that concert, Hans Keller wrote—alluding to the language of Stefan George—that Seiber was one of the ‘sparks of eternal fire’ and that, ‘Now is the time to play, to listen to, Seiber. Let us mourn creatively.’15 We members of the ‘Music, Migration and Mobility’ project echo Keller’s cri de coeur, and invite you to play, to listen and to learn more about the remarkable music of Mátyás Seiber.

Further Reading

LexM, Universität Hamburg—Mátyás Seiber

Mátyás Seiber Trust

Babbitt, Milton, Don Banks, et al., ‘In Memoriam: Mátyás Seiber,’ The Musical Times 111/1531 (September 1970): 886-887.

Bouwers, Kathryn Smith, ‘East Meets West: Contributions of Mátyás Seiber to Jazz in Germany,’ in Jazz & the Germans: Essays on the Influence of ‘Hot’ American Idioms on the 20th Century German Music, Michael J. Budds, ed., Pendragon Press: 2002, 119-140.

Bouwers, Kathryn Smith, ‘Egy váratlan fordulat Seiber Mátyás pályafutásában,’ in Parlando: Zenepedagógiai folyóirat 1 (2000): 24-36.

Dalos, Anna, ‘Identitáskeresés, önmeghatározás és modernizmus Kodály és Bartók tanítványainak pályakezdö möveiben (1925-1932),’ in Kodály és a történelem: Tizenkét tanulmány, Budapest: Rózsavölgyi és Társa, 2015, 147-157.

Gibbs, Alan, ‘Mátyás Seiber and The Dorian Singers,’ The Journal of the British Music Society 27 (2005): 66-71.

Graubart, Michael, ‘Mátyás Seiber, 1905-1960,’ Composer 86 (Winter 1985): 1-4.

Keller, Hans, ‘Mátyás Seiber’ The Musical Times 96/1353 (November 1955): 580-4.

Scheding, Florian, ‘An Animated Quest for Freedom: Mátyás Seiber’s Score for The Magic Canvas’ In German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950, Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli eds., Berghahn Books, 2008: 230-242.

Scheding, Florian, Musical Journeys: Performing Migration in Twentieth-Century Music, Boydell & Brewer, 2019.

Searle, Humphrey and Robert Layton, Twentieth-Century Composers III: Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.

Seiber-Boyd, Julia, ‘Mátyás Seiber,’ British Music Society News 119 (September 2008): 4-8.

Hugh Wood, ‘The Music of Mátyás Seiber,’ The Musical Times 111/1531 (September 1970): 888-91.


1Milton Babbitt, et al. ‘In Memoriam: Mátyás Seiber,’ The Musical Times 111/1531 (September 1970): 887.
2Kathryn Smith Bouwers, ‘East Meets West: Contributions of Mátyás Seiber to Jazz in Germany,’ in Jazz & the Germans: Essays on the Influence of ‘Hot’ American Idioms on 20th Century German Music, ed. Michael J. Budds, Pendragon Press, 2002, 120.
3Florian Scheding, Musical Journeys: Performing Migration in Twentieth-Century Music, Boydell & Brewer, 2019, 56.
4Scheding, Musical Journeys, 49.
5Michael Graubart, ‘Mátyás Seiber: 1905-1960,’ Composer 86 (1985): 1.
6Florian Scheding, ‘An Animated Quest for Freedom: Mátyás Seiber’s score for The Magic Canvas,’ in German-Speaking Émigrés and British Cinema, 1925-1960, eds. Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli, Berghahn Books, 2008, 232.
7Smith Bouwers, ‘East meets West,’ 121.
8Smith Bouwers, ‘East meets West,’ 128.
9F.O.E. Hill, ‘Seiber,’ The Musical Times 111/1534 (December 1970): 1219-1220.
10See: Nick Chadwick, ‘Mátyás Seiber’s Collaboration in Adorno’s Jazz Project, 1936,’ The British Library Journal 21/2 (Autumn 1995): 259-288; and Evelyn Wilcock, ‘The Dating of the Seiber/Adorno Papers held by the British Library,’ The British Library Journal, 23/2 (Autumn 1997): 264-266.
11Scheding, Musical Journeys, especially 89-99.
12Benjamin Wolf, ‘The SPNM 1943-1975: a retrospective,’ The Musical Times 154/1925 (Winter 2013): 47-66.
13Milton Babbitt, et al. ‘In Memoriam: Mátyás Seiber,’ 886.
14Mosco Carner, ‘Mátyás Seiber and his Ulysses,’ in Major and Minor, Duckworth Books, 1980, 172.
15Hans Keller, ‘Mátyás Seiber 1905-1960,’ Tempo 55/56 (Autumn-Winter 1960): 5.

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