Cecilia Vajda was born in Budapest in 1923. She studied at the Liszt Academy of Music and was a pupil of Kodály. After graduating, she went on to teach at the Academy as a Professor in the School Music Department which included the teaching of conducting. Concurrent with this position, she was also the Director of the Hungarian Radio Choir for 6 years, receiving much acclaim for her meticulous training of the Choir and the calibre of performances achieved.

Yehudi Menuhin’s invitation in 1966 to teach at his school in Surrey – following the recommendation he received from Kodály – changed Cecilia’s life irrevocably. Her first task was to learn English ‘from scratch’ which she accomplished in less than 6 months and after a Hungarian ‘red tape’ delay, she finally arrived in London in January 1967 – to live in South Kensington, next door – by coincidence – to the house in which Bartók used to stay when visiting London!

Cecelia Vajda blue plaque

The knowledge that a ‘Kodály’ expert was coming to the UK swiftly spread around the elite of British Music Educators of the time, including Dr Kenneth Simpson – Head of the Music Department at the Institute of Education at the University of London; Dr Leslie Russell – Senior Music Adviser to the Education Department of London C. C. and founder of the London Schools’ Symphony Orchestra; John Andrewes – Director of the Finchley Children’s Music Group; Prof. Ian Parrott – Head of Music at University College, Aberystwyth; Dr Arnold Bennett, Chair of the Society for Research in the Psychology of Music and Music Education etc. Invitations to give Lectures or Courses at their establishments came flooding in, which complemented Cecilia’s part-time position at Stoke D’Abernon. So began the years of crisscrossing the U.K. – Liverpool, Bangor, Leeds, Swansea, West Riding of Yorkshire, Bath, Nottingham, Cardiff, Isle of Man, Glasgow, Sussex, Aberystwyth, Hull, Caernarvon, Reading and so on, giving lectures or one, two and three-day courses – at Universities, Colleges of Education and Teachers’ Centres. And so the ‘Kodály’ flame in Britain was lit and Cecilia did whatever was necessary to keep the embers burning.

The fees paid by Colleges and County Councils were a pittance and, sometimes, even travel expenses were not covered which meant that the Lecture or Course barely helped to pay the rent. This was a far cry from her former lifestyle in Budapest. Added to this, such was the political situation in Hungary, she was obliged to send a percentage of her meagre earnings back to the International Concert Management each month. ‘Hand to mouth’ is not an exaggeration. None of this deterred Cecilia because during her last conversation with Kodály – a few months before he died – he had expressed the hope that she would establish ‘Kodály’ in Britain. Her mission had been given to her – this, then, was her overriding aim and she strove to achieve it, hardship notwithstanding.

Shortly after Cecilia’s arrival in 1967, the Music Teachers’ Association (and later the British Federation of Music Festivals) secured her services to give a ‘Kodály’ Course as part of their Summer School in Matlock College of Education alongside other eminent musicians such as Kenneth Simpson, Kendall Taylor, James Lockhart, Arthur Davison and Keith Swanwick. This engagement became a ‘standing order’ and Cecilia continued this commitment until 1980 first at Matlock, then at York University and finally at Downe House.

Cecilia’s choral conducting abilities were not being overlooked either at this time by the BBC and between 1968 and 1971, she made 6 recordings with the BBC Chorus. She also conducted a Kodály Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1970 and a Bartók Concert at the Purcell Room in 1971, both with the BBC Chorus, which received appreciative and excellent reviews from the critics in leading Music Journals and broadsheets alike.

1969 saw the end of Cecilia’s contract with the Menuhin School, but her Courses around the country continued unabated throughout the next decade. Those at The Teachers’ Centre in Swansea were received with particular enthusiasm and whilst giving a subsequent Course at University College, Swansea in 1970 – the inevitable question arose yet again – will the Kodály Approach really work for British children? To lay this ghost once and for all, Cecilia organised – with the help of the Music Adviser – a series of sessions with children of various ages in various schools in and around Swansea and invited teachers to ‘sit in’. The point was made, of course, and so strongly that the same enlightened Music Adviser began the necessary organisation to ensure that in 1971 Swansea took the accolade of being the venue of the first British Kodály Centre, with Menuhin as its Patron. Cecilia was invited to run extended Courses there for both Primary and Secondary Teachers which meant weekly travelling back and forth from London, culminating in an extensive ‘Concert Demonstration of Kodály’s Educational Work and Choral Music’ devised by Cecilia and held at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. Children from 5 to 13 years of age took part in the demonstrations while Choirs from local schools as well as the Morriston Orpheus Choir sang works by Bartók and Kodály, as well as Welsh Folk Songs.

Finally, Cecilia had to relinquish the continuous nomadic life and consider full-time employment to pay the bills. In 1972 she accepted a position at Chetham’s School in Manchester which was just turning itself into a specialist music school for talented children and the input of Cecilia and ‘Kodály’ were judged to be a necessary factor in that transformation. A move to Cardiff followed and the position of Senior Lecturer at the Welsh College of Music and Drama where she was able to return to teaching at an Advanced Level with her students on the Graduate Courses.
Early in 1970, between her many commitments, Cecilia started writing “The Kodály Way to Music” which was published in 1974 by Boosey & Hawkes, although it was not until the 1990s that she found the time to pen Book II for teachers working at Secondary level.

Towards the end of the 70s, Cecilia began to feel that ‘Kodály’ should take its own recognised place in Britain’s Music Educational landscape. Her real hope was to establish a Training Institute, but the lack of funds made this just a ‘pipe dream’ so the idea of a Kodály Society which had the same aims emerged as her next real goal. She wanted the Society, amongst other objectives, to “undertake the training of Music Teachers via extended courses” which would, eventually, produce a network of experts throughout the country ensuring the quality of the ‘Kodály’ teaching being practised in British Schools and Colleges. To that end, she drew up an eight-point plan, together with the outline of the Courses to be offered, and submitted these documents to Prof. Keith Swanwick, the Head of the Music Department at the Institute of Education in London, where her expertise had been acknowledged – and where she had taught the students on their graduate courses – since her arrival in Britain. Prof. Swanwick was most helpful and shared her aspirations with the result that discussions began in 1978 to bring the plan to fruition.

Cecilia worked tirelessly behind the scenes to facilitate that plan – but due to the usual speed with which the wheels of bureaucracy turn, together with her own commitments – which included a 2 months’ Course in the Spring of 1980 to introduce ‘Kodály’ to the teachers of Hong Kong – it was not until 1981 that the small print had been scrutinized and everything was finally in place. With the backing of Prof. Swanwick, Cecilia’s letter was sent to all her contacts who had shown interest in the educational ideas of Kodály – expressing her desire to set up a British Kodály Society. She invited them to a meeting on 18th September 1981 to be held in the Music Department of the Institute of Education – with the main aim of the meeting: “How to organise and how to run the Society.” The meeting was attended by a great many Music Advisers, Music Teachers and Professional Musicians from all over the country – a consensus was reached, the aims established and the British Kodály Society was finally formed with Cecilia as its working President and Michael Stocks as its first Chairman. A satisfying conclusion to that important meeting, but the invaluable fourteen years’ groundwork that Cecilia had done throughout the country since her 1967 arrival in Britain should not be underestimated: it was the very necessary foundation for the successful inception of the BKS.

As 1982 was the centenary of Kodály’s birth, Cecilia was very anxious that the newly formed Society should mark the event in various ways. She worked relentlessly throughout the year with the aim, not only to honour her former Professor and mentor, but also to make known and popularize the Society and Kodály’s music. Cecilia organised the Society’s first Demonstration which took place in London; designed and brought out the “Centenary Cassette” with an introduction by Menuhin, and last but not least – she planned and was Director of the Society’s first Summer School at Heathfield School, Ascot. In December, as part of the ‘Kodály Centenary Celebrations’ at the Royal Academy – an event organised jointly by the RA, IKS and BKS – Cecilia gave a lecture entitled “Kodály and British Education” which was followed by group demonstrations including one given by herself with her Ensemble of Soloists from the WCMD. She achieved all this alongside a further two months’ Course for teachers in Hong Kong; bringing out an LP entitled “A Tribute to Bartók from Wales” with her students at the WCMD; a seven-week In-Service Course with South Glamorgan Teachers as well as eight other short courses around the country; playing her part to provide and gather material for the all-important BKS Newsletter; several articles in leading music journals including “The International Significance of the Kodály Heritage” in the Chorale, not to mention being knocked down by a motorbike and hospitalised in March!

Her energy and dedication to the Kodály cause were phenomenal. During 1982, she also began to gather a group of eminent musicians to be the Patrons of this fledgling organisation – to give it standing and credibility in the eyes of the world. So the BKS letter paper and brochure soon bore the names of Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sarolta Kodály, Sir Charles Mackerras, Prof. Keith Swanwick, Tamás Vásáry, Sir David Willcocks, Antal Dorati, Sir David Lumsden and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. They all willingly agreed to be associated with an organisation headed by Cecilia as they were mostly known to her personally and/or were cognizant of her prestigious standing in Music Education.

In the years to follow, although still Senior Lecturer at the WCMD, Cecilia concentrated all her efforts on promoting the BKS, planning courses and providing valuable material for the support of teachers, such as videos demonstrating various ways of using Kodály’s Principles at all levels – Early Childhood, Primary, Secondary and College. The programmes were designed by Cecilia and the participants were teachers who had studied with her and who could now show their work with their pupils. She also hoped that the sales of these videos would generate some funds for the Society. With this aim in mind, as well as to put/keep the BKS ‘in the public eye’, in 1984 she persuaded her Hungarian colleague, Tamás Vásáry to give a Masterclass in the Purcell Room “in aid of the Society” and later, with the added objective of further popularising Kodály’s music, Sarolta Kodály agreed to give a Recital of her husband’s works in the Wigmore Hall, accompanied by Vásáry.

Cecilia began work in 1985 on her next large project which was to produce a series of sound cassettes demonstrating “Musicianship Training according to the Kodály Principles” at elementary, intermediate and advanced levels – utilising the work of present and former students. A teaching commentary guides the listener throughout the training and each tape is accompanied by a leaflet that describes the content of the recorded work. She designed these to help the development of musicianship in both children and adults who are learning instruments, or studying singing – particularly helpful if a Kodály course was not ‘at hand’.

The Summer Schools went from strength to strength, finally settling in Cheltenham Ladies’ College with more of Cecilia’s former students and colleagues from the Liszt Academy joining the British staff. Throughout the 80s, Cecilia continued to instigate at least one yearly Demonstration of Kodály work by children of all ages in different parts of the country, but it was not until 1986 – when her retirement from the WCMD was in sight – was she able finally to materialize the One Year Part-time Courses on Kodály’s Principles in Practice which were held at Queen’s Gate School, SW7. At last, her longed-for aim, an in-depth Kodály study which could – over three years – take the student from the elementary stage through the intermediate to an advanced level of musicianship. Prof. Erzsébet Szönyi, a fellow student of Cecilia’s at the Liszt Academy, put the students through their paces at the end-of-year examinations awarding a Diploma – or not! – which was acknowledged by the Trinity College of Music and recognised by the Liszt Academy. Once this centre of Kodály study was established in London, Cecilia suggested to the Committee that the Society should change its name to ‘Academy’ which more closely described the study-based organisation. Hence the British Kodály Academy was born.

Cecilia Vajda was Britain’s most authoritative and experienced exponent of Kodály’s philosophy of Music Education. She brought ‘Kodály’ to these shores in 1967, adapted the Principles to our school system and to our musical heritage and gave life to the Kodály movement in Britain.

Cecilia excelled in both her professions – conducting and teaching – and she strove in the latter to help her students reach the peak of their musicianship skills which she knew would bring them joy and strength. But more than this, Cecilia’s fervent belief that music training in the true, undiluted Kodály Way “contributes to the whole development of a person – physical, mental, spiritual – and it creates well educated, caring, responsible human beings” was central to who she was and why she did what she did for the last 40 years of her life.

She was an exceptional person whose dedication to her task was self-evident. I was privileged to have been able to observe her ‘labour of love’ and to have been of some assistance to her in her endeavours.

Needless to say, I am delighted that the CVMS is being set up in memory of the founder of the BKA and trust that it will help to keep her memory alive and that the recipient of this award each year, will continue to receive teaching of the highest calibre at the Summer School.

Mary Skone-Roberts

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