Cynthia Jolly, who has died aged 94, was a soprano, translator, critic and music teacher who spent many years as part of Zoltán Kodály’s inner circle in Budapest; through her writing and performing she did much to bring his collection of Hungarian folk tunes and ideas about music education to the English-speaking world.
A formidable linguist, Cynthia Jolly made her first visit to Budapest in 1948, later recalling how the composer greeted her Hungarian debut at a Bartók festival “with affectionate delight that I should have attempted to sing songs in the original [language]”.
She was fascinated by Kodály’s collection of songs from remote villages, which he had recorded on phonograph cylinders from as early as 1905. With funding from the British Council and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, Cynthia Jolly resolved to discover them afresh for herself.
Kodály urged her to visit Somogy, in southwest Hungary, to see if there had been any changes from the music that he had recorded. “With an English philologist and a Scottish agricultural student I set out to do what I would have hesitated to do in my own country,” she wrote in 1968.
The composer studied her results closely and encouraged her to present them in a lecture at the Franz Liszt Academy. She found him to be immensely supportive in all her work. On one occasion he stepped in when she was ordered to leave Hungary “with no reason given except that I was a bourgeois student” - after which no more was heard from the authorities.
Meanwhile, thanks to the lessons she received in Hungary, Cynthia Jolly was pursuing a parallel career as a singer, including appearances at the Wigmore Hall, London. In November 1949 she performed what one critic called “a group of rather prickly modern songs”, although the reviewer added that “her advocacy was persuasive”. And when Kodály received an honorary doctorate from Oxford she performed his songs.
She lived for a while in Rome and Vienna, where she combined professional performances with writing musical news for specialist publications in Britain. Her final concert at the Wigmore Hall appears to have been in 1963, when she performed a wide-ranging programme in German, Russian and Hungarian. “Her keen intelligence was revealed in her feeling for style just as much as her lively musical imagination showed itself in her characterisation,” wrote one critic.
Cynthia Mary Jolly was born in North Croydon on January 14 1922, the daughter of Canon Reginald Jolly. His wife Muriel was a church organist and Cynthia, with her three elder brothers and younger sister, sang in the church choir. She was six when her father was appointed rector of St Mary’s Church, Southampton, and helped to remove precious artefacts when the church was damaged by German bombing in November 1940.
She read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, though her studies were interrupted by a year in London as an air raid warden. In 1947 she translated Alexis Roland-Manuel’s biography of Maurice Ravel before travelling to Budapest on a scholarship, initially to study viola. In the event she pursued singing instead.
After her father’s death in 1972 Cynthia Jolly returned to Britain permanently, settling back in Southampton where she lived with an elderly aunt and campaigned to preserve Chantry Hall, a listed building that had been used when her father’s church was bombed. She played an active role in the British Kodály Academy and taught singing locally. In retirement she continued to give private lessons, one of her pupils being Sally Matthews, the acclaimed soprano.
Despite a long relationship with the Dutch conductor Maurits Sillem, she was unmarried.
Cynthia Jolly, born January 14 1922, died April 1 2016