László Somfai is a significant figure of international musicology, a dominant personality of domestic musicology and professional training first of all by his Haydn- and Bartók researches. He is Head of the Bartók Archives of the Institute of Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; a professor of the Liszt Ferenc University of Music, arbiter of the PhD program in musicology.
He is from a provincial family of pedagogues. After completion of his studies at the secondary school of music he was admitted to the musicology department of the Academy of Music established in 1951. His teachers included Dénes Bartha, Lajos Bárdos, Zoltán Gárdonyi and Bence Szabolcsi. He earned a musicologist degree with his study discussing the art of Haydn's quartets. He worked at the Music Collection of the National Széchényi Library with Jenő Vécsey, from 1958 already. He got to the Bartók Archives in 1963; its director was Bence Szabolcsi, while the scientific leadership was undertaken by the renowned Belgian scholar Denijs Dille. He has been leading the Archives since 1972.
The first of his publications gaining international attention were tied to his Haydn-researches pursued also at the Széchényi Library. He published the book Haydn als Opernkapellmeister (1960) with his wife Dorrit Révész, and Dénes Bartha. The basic work of iconography, known by the title Joseph Haydn élete képekben [The Life of Joseph Haydn in pictures] issued in Hungarian (1977), had been published in German and English translations first (1966 and 1969). He wrote his monography - also a standard work - with a genre-centered approach on the piano sonatas of Haydn (1979, revised English edition: 1995). At the discussion of questions of form, instrumental technique and the Aufführungspraxis, a special emphasis is given to the characteristics of the layers of style and genre. He was awarded the title ‘Doctor of Sciences' for this works. His publications on Liszt and Erkel manuscripts (on the Faust Symphony, and on the Erkel ‘family workshop') were done at the time of his work at the Széchényi Library.
The plan and the scientific preparation of the critical edition of Bartók's complete works have been at the centre of his interest from the beginning of the 1980s. International conferences were held on this topic at the Bartók Seminar in Szombathely. His collection of selected studies, the Tizennyolc Bartók tanulmány [Eighteen Bartók Studies] (1981) is a versatile representation of his Bartók research from the interpretation of sketches through analysis of style to examination of the author's performances.
Due to his expertise of the music historical research of the 18th century he successfully developed new, specific methods of manuscript-examination in the Bartók research. Such methods are first of all the research of paper types, similarly to watermark-research. His comprehensive work published in Hungarian as Bartók Béla kompozíciós módszere [The Compositional Method of Béla Bartók] (2000), based on the examination of all the manuscripts of Bartók, had been written in English originally (1996). He has been working on the thematic catalogue of the works of Bartók recently.
In his frequently published studies he has an outlook to Mozart and other composers of the era as well as to Stravinsky or Webern besides Bartók. Besides studies, critical score editions (Gluck, Mozart), first editions (Albrechtsberger, Michael Haydn among others) and facsimile editions with notes (Haydn, Bartók) are tied to his name. He published the sound recordings preserving the piano playing and voice of Bartók in a critical edition of recordings with Zoltán Kocsis and János Sebestyén. Furthermore, he published a selection of recordings of folk music with notations of Bartók. He maintains a close connection with performers at his fields of research. He is frequently asked for consultations; he served as an advisor at sound recordings – mainly at the recordings of Haydn and Bartók.
Besides research, teaching also ties him to the Hungarian and international life of musicology. He was a recipient of a Ford Scholarship in the USA in 1967/1968. He was invited to the musicology department of the Academy of Music in Budapest in 1969, where he has been giving lectures and seminars on the Classical style, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, and leading Urtext-courses since then. He visited the United States many times on lecture tours, and was a guest professor of the City University New York in 1984, and the ‘Ernest Bloch professor' of the University of California, Berkeley in 1989. He gave lectures in England, Germany, Canada and Austria, as well.
László Somfai is a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and honorary member of foreign academies (British Academy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences), member of numerous international societies (Zentralinstitut der Mozartforschung Salzburg, Joseph Haydn-Institut Cologne etc.), and was the first president of the Hungarian Musicological Society (1994–98), at present, he is the president of the International Musicological Society during the 1997–2002 cycle. He was awarded the Széchenyi Prize in 1999.