Máté Balogh has long been interested in vocal works, but few choral works can be found in his output so far. On October 4, however, a selection of his new choral works will be heard at the author's evening at the House of Hungarian Music. The Pax et bonum Chamber Choir will be conducted by Boldizsár Kiss, the works will be introduced by the poet Renátó Fehér and the composer himself.
Have you ever sung in a choir?
I attended the Móricz Zsigmond Singing and Music Primary School in Dunaújváros, where I sang in mixed choirs, boys' choirs and chamber choirs for 8 years under the guidance of Adrienn Szigethy. Here, of course, we mainly sang the repertoire typical of the Kodály schools: Bárdos, Kodály, and spirituals. Later, I also studied choral conducting at the conservatory in Pécs where we conducted each other in the chamber choir. And when I was a student of the Budapest Music Academy, I sang in the New Ferenc Liszt Chamber Choir, founded by Péter Erdei, and in the Capella Silentium vocal group founded by Tamás Várkonyi and Boglárka Terray. The latter has been a chamber ensemble of 12 singers, with which we performed extraordinary things, including Josquin, Willaert, Cipriano di Rore, Pierre de la Rue, Giovanni Gabrieli, Luca Marenzio. Here I got to know the renaissance repertoire and these few years basically defined my thinking as a composer. One of my outstanding experiences is when we sang Luca Marenzio's motet Super flumina Babylonis in three galleries in Salzburg Cathedral. This inspired my work Luca Marenzio in Salzburg composed for three string quartets.
It is therefore surprising that, although you are a choir singer by blood, for a long time you did little to compose for choirs.
That's right. Although at the start of my career – about 15 years ago – I composed a lot of vocal works, there were few choral works among them. There were two reasons for this. One is that I couldn't feel at home in the post-Kodály, neo-tonal language that is widely characteristic of the contemporary Hungarian choral repertoire, and for me it is very conservative. The other reason was that the compositional questions that preoccupied me at the time could not really be transferred to a choir. There were two exceptions, my Joyce canon composed for Capella Silentium, Ode to Joyce, and my choir on Mihály Csokonai Vitéz’s poem, The Four Stages of the Year, which won the competition of the National Choir. Although both works were completed and performed, their performance proved too difficult, and they could not claim to remain in the repertoire.
What made you quite suddenly start composing choral works recently?
Due to four independent effects. One of them was the request of choral conductor-organist Soma Lozsányi, who encouraged me to write a piece for his own choir, based on Edward Lear's Nonsense Book. My limerick collection entitled 9 Songs was finally completed in memory of Mátyás Seiber – also a limerick author – and premiered by Soma with the choir of the Academy of Music. The recording of the work was posted on the Internet and, surprisingly for me, it "spread" the piece to some extent, which encouraged me to continue searching in this area. Another influence was my work at the Kodály Institute, where I have been teaching music theory for many years. I composed a collection called Song Book for the students of the institute, which contains choral studies. Thanks to László Nemes and Anna Füri, the pieces were performed in Dublin. When I listened to them, it became clear what would be comfortable even for an amateur choir, and what would be completely wrong. The third influence was the interest of the Cantemus Choir from Nyíregyháza, who presented my pieces Moses' Song and Zulu Nights in a brilliant performance as part of the Danube Bend Contemporary Music Festival, which meant a further inspiration. And the fourth influence was Zsuzsánna Mindszenty, who asked me to participate in the jury of last fall's national Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir Competition. Amateur and semi-professional choirs came from all over the country, with the most varied repertoire possible. It was a great experience to see into the "middle" of things, to get to know these people, and – although this may be a very romantic thought – to see large crowds truly enjoying music.
I understand that you also met the performers of your upcoming author's evening, the Pax et bonum Chamber Choir, there.
Boldizsár Kiss and his choir won the grand prize of the competition, fully deserved. When the House of Hungarian Music contacted me to organize an author's evening, I immediately thought of Pax et bonum. So far, I have composed several choral works, and it is a great pleasure for me that the UMP Editio Musica Budapest supported me and published some of them.
Your works in Hungarian, English, German, gibberish and even Zulu will be performed at the concert. The question is obvious: are you more interested in the content of the text or the sound?
Sometimes both can prevail. If a work in Zulu is about elephants and lions, it is not only interesting because its prosody is compellingly rhythmic. At the same time, I am generally interested in the inflection, melody, declamation, or, if you like, structure of the texts. My recitation choir called JoycEND is based on the last phrase of Joyce's Ulysses, where the unpredictability of the ever-recurring YES! cries dominates the musical material. And in the work entitled The Dinner of Miklós Misztótfalusi Kis, I selected 17th-century recipe texts that, although they are clearly in Hungarian, have lost their precise meaning today, at least for a city person like me. The basic experience of this, by the way, is that I once heard a person talking in Komi language. It is like Hungarian in every respect, but nothing can be understood from it. I think it is for the same reason that I chose the texts of my poet friend Renátó Fehér. His latest book of poems, Torkolatcsönd [Muzzle Silence], is about the problems of tellability-ineffability, ability and inability to speak, where the texts are so "wrecked" that although they are perceptibly in Hungarian, they often do not carry a concrete meaning. For me, these poems are as much music as certain poems of Sándor Weöres. They cry out to be “set to music” and are very rewarding material. In addition to their strong character, they have a "space of meaning", which I aim to create in my own pieces.
Photo: Szilárd Nagyillés