Zoltán Kodály

1882 1967

Zoltán Kodály



Zoltán Kodály was a leading Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and educator. He developed an international concept of music education at primary school level and, together with Bartók, created a new style of Hungarian music.

Kodály was born in 1882 in Kecskemét and spent the first 18 years of his life in the countryside. He was introduced to music at home through his father, who played violin, and his mother, who sang and played piano. He was also introduced to traditional folksongs at his school in Galánta. With very little teaching, Kodály learnt to play many instruments, including the piano, violin, viola and cello and was able to participate in chamber music at home and with the school orchestra. He also sang in the church choir and began to compose at a young age; some of his first works include the Overture in D minor for orchestra (1898) and the Trio in E major for two violins and viola (1899).

In 1900, Kodály left to study at the Budapest University; he also attended Eötvös College and the Academy of Music, where he studied composition with Koessler, obtaining a diploma in 1904. He also received a teaching diploma in 1905.

In 1906, Kodály presented his PhD thesis, A Magyar népdal strófaszerkezete  (‘The stanzaic structure of Hungarian folksong’), which reflected his interest in both music and language. He began his own tours to collect folksongs in 1905. During his activities he developed a close friendship with Bartók. Together, they worked on many projects, beginning with their publication of Magyar népdalok (‘Hungarian folksongs’) (1906). Bartók stated in 1935 that the beginning of their collaboration began when “the vision of an educated Hungary, reborn from the people, rose before us. We decided to devote our lives to its realization.”

Kodály continued his studies in Berlin and Paris, where he encountered the influential music of Debussy. Upon his return to Hungary, he was appointed professor at the Academy of Music, where he taught theory, composition, harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration and score-reading; however, he became most focused on vocal polyphony and musical literacy. Some of his students include Dorati, Lang, Ormandy, Seiber, Lajos Bárdos and Jenő Ádám.

The first public concert devoted to Kodály’s music took place in 1910 in Budapest with a performance by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet. Other early performances of his works were also successful in Paris and Zürich.

Kodály was an active music critic and writer. He wrote about the importance of folk music and, most interestingly, provided analyses of Bartók’s music.

In 1919, after the bourgeois revolution, the Academy of Music was raised to university status and Kodály was appointed assistant director to Dohnányi. However, after the fall of the Hungarian Republic, a campaign against him and his work ensued, and he lost his position and the right to teach for two years. The start of the war also delayed his international success, isolating him from the world.

In 1921, Universal Edition began publishing his scores, bringing his music to other countries. HisPsalmus hungaricus (1923), a setting of Psalm IV as translated by the 16th century Mihály Kecskeméti Vég, an oratorio, for tenor, chorus and orchestra was premiered by Dohnányi in 1923 at the 50th anniversary celebration of Budapest’s formation from the union of Pest, Buda and Óbuda. The oratorio was first performed outside of Hungary three years later in Zürich, bringing him much international recognition.

In 1926, his Singspiel Háry János (1926) was premiered, bringing about even more fame, especially with the addition of the six movement suite drawn from the original work. Conductors such as Toscanini, Mengelberg, Ansermet and Furtwängler included Kodály’s works in their programmes.

Though his level of recognition was rising, his revision of Hungarian art music, as a juxtaposition of traditional and experimental elements, was not appreciated all around and the reputation of his composition students suffered. In 1928, Bartók defended Kodály’s work by stating, “If I were to name a composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály.”

Throughout his incredible seven decade composing career, Kodály published numerous folksong and ballads, most notably in the 11 books for voice and piano, Magyar népzene (‘Hungarian folk music’) (1924-1932).

Kodály’s earliest works capture the spirt of both the Viennese Classicism and German Romanticism. These elements can be found inEste (‘Evening) (1904) for chorus and the Adagio for violin and piano (1905). In his later works, his discovery of folksongs and Debussy are apparent. Throughout both periods, influences from Mozart and Haydn are found in his melodies while Gregorian chant, Palestrina and Bach keyboard works also informed his style.

With a melody as a foundation, Kodály was able to uniquely synthesize all the various elements to create his own style. Bartók described Kodály’s works as being “characterized in the main by rich melodic invention, a perfect sense of form, a certain predilection for melancholy and uncertainty.”

One of his works embodying these elements is his Dances from Galánta for Orchestra (1933), dedicated to the Budapest Philharmonic Society on its 80th birthday. The dances are seen almost as a sequel to his earlier piano suite, Dance of Marosszék (1927), which celebrates an area of Transylvania he had seen growing up. The orchestral dances refer to the small Hungarian market town of Galánta, located between Vienna and Budapest, where Kodály spent seven years of his childhood. At the time there was a famous gypsy band that would play there, as emulated by the clarinet, which takes over the role of the single-reed instrument, tárogató, present in Hungarian folk music. The dances from this work were taken from old publications of Gyspy music.

Other works of importance include his Szinházi nyitány (‘Theatre Overture’) (1927) andSzékely fonó (‘The Transylvanian Spinning-Room’) (1932), in addition to hisMissa brevis (1945), which he completed during the war in the cellar of a Budapest convent.

In addition to his legacy as a composer, Kodály contributed a legacy in music education. He strongly emphasized the importance of music education in the early years and radically revised the methods. He wrote singing and reading exercises along with composing many choruses, leading to the revival of the Hungarian choral movement. To this day, his elementary music school methods are used worldwide.

Kodály continued his work until just before his death in 1967 in Budapest.

Header image courtesy of public domain Other images courtesy of the British Kodaly Academy, bacstudastar.hu and bach-cantatas.com