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Few choral conductors achieve the celebrity or cult status of some orchestral maestros, yet the finest of them produce thrilling performances. Obviously they have that same ability to inspire and train a body of musicians. Hungarian-born Cecilia Vajda was like a force of nature in this area of music-making, but she equally deserves wider recognition for her tireless educational work in championing Zoltán Kodály’s Philosophy of Music Education, or The Kodály Way. This biography gives a vivid account of her life and work, each characterised by the pursuit of excellence and absolute integrity.

Remembering when he was an 11-year-old pupil at Chetham’s, Stephen Hough writes of Cecilia Vajda in his foreword: ‘a woman of immense, infectious vivacity and as sparkling as a perfectly polished silver knife.’ As an eight-year-old, Nigel Kennedy was taught by her at the Menuhin School. Forty years later, he was asked whether he remembered her. He smiled and said, ‘Of course I do! She was a wonderful teacher. Her style of teaching was unique and inspirational.’

It should be emphasised that Kodály’s concept of music education was not merely the teaching of sol-fa (or solfège). We should not mistake the roots for the tree. When Kodály was disturbed by the standard of children’s singing in Hungary, he was moved to actively improve the music education system. As part of his pioneering project he composed new pieces for children to sing, replacing the inferior music in general circulation, but he also insisted on better teachers, a better curriculum and, above all, the allocation of more time devoted to music.

Sadly, it so often happens that a person of prodigious ability, enthusiasm and almost superhuman energy will unwittingly provoke in his or her colleagues feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. As Professor Erzsébet Szőnyi writes: ‘Someone who raises the gold standard of the arts often meets with some opposition.’ Vajda encountered such opposition in Hungary in the 1960s. At that time it was extremely difficult for a woman to succeed in any male-dominated environment, but this was a totalitarian state.

This book is an inspiring account of an extraordinary woman. My main caveat is Kenneth Shenton’s unruly syntax, a problem which recurs throughout. To select one typical example among dozens, p 79: ‘At that time, very much a pioneer, there was no one else undertaking the task.’ Levine Andrade is described as going on to ‘make his name with the London Mozart Players’ – but his far more important role as founder-member of the Arditti Quartet is overlooked. The Miraculous Mandarin is not an opera and the villain in Tosca is Scarpia, not Scarpio (both p 150). Disappointingly, this book is seriously marred by mistakes which are easy to correct. Was nobody on hand to ensure a standard of proof-reading worthy of Cecilia Vajda?

Philip Borg-Wheeler Read the full review on Agora Classica

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