About this work
A November 1923, concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the merging of the towns of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda unveiled one interesting and two exceptional works. The interesting item was the Festival Overture by Dohnányi, who conducted the concert; the masterpieces were Bartók's Dance Suite and Kodály's Psalmus Hungaricus. Kodály's work draws from a sacred text for a secular occasion; it's largely homophonic, eschewing the heavily polyphonic models of religious music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. And although Kodály never quotes Hungarian folk songs here, he does incorporate many modal turns of phrase that make the work's national origin unquestionable.
Rather than writing a celebratory work, Kodály chose to examine Hungary's immediate, tragic past and distasteful present. The music reflects the nation's difficult years during and after World War I, and the text makes the connection clear, if in a subtle way; it's a free Hungarian translation of Psalm 55, "Give ear to my prayer, o God," in which sixteenth century poet, preacher, and translator Mihály Vég draws a parallel between the sorrows of King David and the suffering of the Hungarians under Turkish occupation. Thus, the Psalmus Hungaricus neatly encapsulates two and a half millennia of political distress.
A short orchestral prelude setting the Hungarian tone leads to a brief, subdued choral narrative. The solo tenor soon takes over, passionately singing "Oh, that I had wings like a dove." The chorus offers the tenor a brief respite from this aria of operatic proportions, but he returns with more declamatory material; upon naming the sinners who plot the downfall of innocents, he is joined by a wordlessly lamenting female chorus, their cries and the tenor's material swelling to the climactic choral assertion that "God shall hear, and afflict them." This subsides and the tenor returns with a dramatic monologue that carries the movement almost to its end, when the chorus joins in again with a strenuous outburst. The second movement begins without pause, but in a more reflective mode, with a shimmering undercurrent of harp and pizzicato strings and extended solos for various instruments, particularly clarinet and violin. The tenor returns with a long, flowing nocturnal treatment of "But reassure my heart," which balances tenderness and ardor just as a love aria would. The chorus then takes command in the final movement, which is intermittently militaristic; it's also defiant, even in its quieter interludes. The work ends, however, with a hushed prayer.