Friday 16 April 2021

Mátyás Seiber: Besardo Suite No.2 (1942)

In a review of the only recording of Mátyás Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2, the musicologist Michael Kennedy hit the nail on the head. He wrote (Manchester Sounds Volume 7, 2007-8) that ‘whenever one hears a work by Mátyás Seiber, one wonders why his music remains the preserve of a devoted band of admirers rather than appealing to a wider audience.’ But the key point was this: the Besardo Suite is ‘more in line with [Peter] Warlock’s Capriol Suite, being six very attractive movements…’ Certainly this latter work is often heard on records, radio and in the concert hall. Why not Seiber’s?  He concludes this section of his review by suggesting that this Suite should ‘be heard more often in the concert hall.’ Interestingly, Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International (8 June 2008) noted a few other works that are similar in concept:  Moeran's Whythorne's Shadow and Rubbra's Farnaby Improvisations. To this could be added the Italian Ottorino Respighi’s three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances as well as his The Birds

Mátyás Seiber wrote: ‘the tunes on which this Suite is based are all taken from the Burgundian composer and scholar, Jean Baptiste Besard’s Thesaurus Harmonicus, published in 1603. The work consists of ten volumes containing Preludes, Fantasias, Branles, and Ballets, Airs de Coeur, Passamezzi, Courantes etc. altogether over 400 pieces by various composers. Although well-known to musicologists, this important work has never been transcribed into modern notation, except for a few numbers here and there. In 1940 I transcribed the work from the old lute tablature into modern notation and found it a real thesaurus: a store house full of the most attractive and charming sixteenth century dance-tunes.”  (Liner Notes for Dutton Epoch CDLX 7207)

The Besardo Suite No.2 has six movements: 1. Intrada (B minor), 2. Guillemette - Chorea Rustica (B minor), 3. Galliarda Dolorata (G minor), 4. Branle Commun (D major), 5. Madrigale (B minor) and 6. Cournate de Guerre - Canaries (G major). 

The six movements are arranged in a fast-slow sequence. The overall key structure of the Suite is B minor, with other movements being (as noted) in G minor, D major and G major. This follows the “early practice of keeping the dances of a suite in the same or related keys.” The Suite lasts for about 14 minutes.

In 1940, Seiber had produced his Besardo Suite No.1 for full orchestra. To my knowledge this has not been recorded. Two years later, the second suite was premiered by the Boyd Neel Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall on 3 December 1945.  F. Bonavia writing in The Times (4 December 1945) noted that the concert was ‘devoted entirely to the works of Mátyás Seiber’. Other performers at that concert included the Dorian Singers.  Bonavia noted that despite Seiber hailing from Hungary, his musical style and tastes ‘are not bound by national frontiers.’  Music performed included a short mass setting for unaccompanied voices, which ‘owes much to plainsong.’  This Missa Brevis dated from 1926. Folksongs from Yugoslavia and Greece were heard. Turning to the Suite, Bonavia noted that ‘a sixteenth century composer (Besard) had provided him with the raw material for an attractive suite for strings.’ Summing up the concert, he considered that ‘the general impression one derived from listening to Mr Seiber’s music was that he possesses in a high degree the ability to deduce [?]. Competence, too, was manifest.’ Interestingly, Bonavia did not mention the fact that Dennis Brain gave the premiere performance of Seiber’s Notturno for horn and strings at that night’s concert. 

In 2008, Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7207) issued Antiphon: A Tribute to John Manduell as a celebration of his 80th Birthday. Included on the CD was Lennox Berkeley’s Antiphon for string orchestra, Peter Crossley-Holland’s Suite No.1 for string orchestra, Anthony Gilbert’s Another Dream Carousel for string orchestra and John Manduell’s Rondo for None, for string nonet. The recital opened with Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2.  The Manchester Chamber Ensemble was conducted by Richard Howarth.

Finally, in 1956 Seiber issued more transcriptions as Eight Besardo Dances for guitar.

Mátyás Seiber’s Besardo Suite No.2 has been uploaded to YouTube. This link allows the listener to explore the entire album, 

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