Ceclia Vajda: Musician, teacher and authority on the work of Zoltá*Kodály

Throughout a long and distinguished professional career, Cecilia Vajda enriched the world of music in a wide variety of ways. Teacher, conductor, performer, lecturer, writer, scholar and undoubted enthusiast, in particular, in her stimulating and authoritative advocacy of the music of the composer Zoltán Kodály; indeed, Vajda did much to enhance our understanding of this most versatile of musicians.

Born in Budapest, Vajda studied with Kodály and Vásárhelyi Zoltán at the city’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music.

Graduating in 1946, following a brief spell teaching at Erzsébet Nöiskola, a girls’ middle school, she quickly returned to her academic roots, joining the professorial staff at the Academy.

It was at this time, also working in partnership with the Hungarian Radio Choir, that she first established her reputation as a choral conductor.

In addition to being one of Hungary’s leading composers, Kodály had formalised a unique national system of music education. Based on the moveable dohsystem of Tonic Sol-fah, it used the voice as the child’s natural instrument and folksong as its basic foundation.

Always acknowledging his great debt to the English pioneer John Curwen, Kodály compiled a highly comprehensive graded system of teaching materials, some 22 volumes in all, which comprise The Kodály Method.

A fervent admirer of Kodály’s system was the celebrated virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. It was he who, on a visit to Hungary in 1967, invited Vajda to come to England to help spread the gospel.

Having initially trained the pupils and then the teachers at Menuhin’s newly formed specialist music school at Stoke d’Abernon, she later also worked at Chetham’s School of Music, was Visiting Lecturer at the music department of the University of London Institute of Education and senior lecturer at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Possessing an elegant literary style, her published writings, initially in scholastic journals, were precise, literate and stylish. In 1974, she distilled her extensive knowledge into what became a seminal text, The Kodály Way to Music. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, it was followed five years later by a second volume. Later, in tandem with the written word, she devised and recorded a graded series of audio tapes, essentially a self-contained general musicianship course based on the principles of the Kodály Method, Music to Sing and Play-All in the Kodály Way.

With the enthusiastic support of Kodály’s biographer, Dr. Percy Young, and leading educationalist, Kenneth Simpson, together, in 1981, they helped her form the British Kodály Society.

From its very first summer school, held that year in Ascot, it went on to promote an increasingly diverse range of master classes, workshops and seminars.

Welcoming all-comers, almost without exception, Vajda was able to turn them into matchless exponents of the art. She was later elected as its first president. Today, the British Kodály Academy, as it is now known, remains firmly committed to continuing her pioneering work.

A charismatic choral technician, Vajda was meticulous, exacting and demanding. She was appointed musical director of the Pro Arte Singers, this intimate ensemble finding a particularly conducive habitat on London's South Bank. Whether appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall or the Purcell Room, she delighted in introducing British audiences to the unique range and colour of little-known aspects of Hungarian choral music.

Whether appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall or the Purcell Room, she delighted in introducing British audiences to the unique range and colour of little-known aspects of Hungarian choral music.

A vivacious and elegant lady, erudite and persuasive, in recent years, inhabiting a much more international landscape, her scholastic credentials found a ready outlet at seminars and musical events worldwide. Earlier this year, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to music, she was presented with the prestigious Bartók-Pástory award. Sadly, it now provides a most poignant and fitting tribute to one who successfully bestrode the often narrow confines of her art with such consummate ease.

Kenneth Shenton

Cecilia Vajda, musician, conductor, scholar, teacher: born Budapest, Hungary 23 March 1923; died London 28 November 2009.