ZOLTAN KODALY (1882 – 1967)
The aim of these biographical synopses by me is to sketch in something of the life of the composer in question without treading on Matthew’s toes in that his primary preoccupation is to open up to us the music. Of course, he does tell us about the composer and I sometimes stray to talk about the music but in general the division works well. I reckon I get the better deal because I do not need to touch upon modulations and augmented fourths and the like. Our composers usually have some interesting titbits about them tucked away which might take your fancy. Others – César Franck for example – are impeccably well behaved, never travel anywhere and leave me with no juicy bits to tell. Zoltan Kodaly seems to be one of the latter.
Kodaly, pronounced “Coe” as in Sebastian, and “Dye” as in change of colour, is best known for a handful of works, in particular, the suite “Hary Janos” and some other works from the 1930’s of ethnic Hungarian basis. He was born in Hungary in 1882, the same year as Stravinsky. Apart from a short period of study in Paris, he never moved away from Hungary although there were times when Hungary moved away from him and he found where he had previously lived had become Slovakia. His early interests leaned more towards literary studies than to music. His father was a railway official which meant the family moving on from time to time. From when he was two to when he was nine the Kodaly’s lived in Galánta, a name best known from the dances he wrote later on based on folk music from the region. Later he moved to an area, now part of Slovakia, where Kodaly studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir. He familiarised himself from scores in the cathedral music library. To make up the numbers for his father’s quartet-soirées he went and taught himself the cello. By the time he was fifteen he was already composing for the school orchestra who played an overture of his, followed a year later by a mass he wrote for chorus and orchestra.
In 1900, Kodály studied modern languages at university in Budapest, but music began to exert its pull and he set out to undertake the serious study of folk tales, becoming one of the most significant early figures in the field of ethnomusicology – (what an awful word). In 1905 he visited remote villages to collect songs which he obtained from older country folk, recording them on phonograph cylinders. In 1906 he enrolled at the Academy of Music in 1906, completing a thesis entitled: “The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk-Songs” – it remains on my reading list. Around this time Kodály met Béla Bartók, whom he took under his wing and introduced to some of the methods involved in folk song collation. The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other’s music.
He began composing prolifically and his interest in Hungarian folk songs took him and often Bartok also on various trips to the Hungarian interior, where they collected folk songs which they published. What they produced were modes and scales of Hungarian music, authentic and not previously known, unlike Liszt for example whose Hungarian Rhapsodies were a somewhat romantic attempt to reproduce Hungarian gypsy music which had more in common with the café pavements than archaeological efforts to preserve Magyar culture.
After gaining his doctorate in philosophy and linguistics, Kodály went to Paris in 1906 where he studied with Charles Widor and discovered the music of Debussy and other impressionists. On his return to Budapest the following year he was appointed a professor at the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy where he taught music theory and composition. He was to teach there for most of his life, retiring at age 60 in 1942 but returning there as the Director of the Academy in 1945. Whatever political leanings he might have had, his music career spanned from the Hapsburg years before the first world war through the post Versailles period with Hungary independent and the fascist takeover in the late thirties which Bartok but not Kodály escaped, to the post 1945 Communist takeover and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and beyond.
Returning to his early years following his appointment to the Franz Liszt Academy he got married in 1910 to Emma Gruber, a talented pianist and folk song collector and whose salon was visited by many a composer trying out his early works. She first got to know Bartok who valued her friendship and introduced her to Kodály and it seems it might have been a Jules and Jim relationship. Anyway it was Kodály who got his woman who divorced her banker husband, Henrik Gruber and became a soul mate to Kodály sharing their mutual love for music and folk song collection. She was twenty years his senior and they enjoyed a happy marriage lasting 48 years until her death aged 95.
Back in the pre-first world war days, it took some time for him in getting known and then making headway outside of his own country, not helped then either by the outbreak of a world war nor because of his lack of pushing himself forward. He did however continue with his folksong researches throughout the war. He had composed throughout this time, producing two string quartets, a sonata for cello and piano and a sonata for solo cello solo. These works show originality of form and content and a blend of style of music, including classical, late-romantic, and also both impressionistic and modernist tradition coupled at the same time with a deep knowledge of Hungarian folk music and that of other Eastern European countries.
His first big public success came in 1923 with the first performance of his Psalmus Hungaricus, a powerful setting of a sixteenth-century Hungarian version of Psalm 55. This, like Bartók’s Dance Suite premiered on the same occasion, was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of the two towns of Buda and Pest, each on the other side of the river from the other. Following his emergence, Kodály travelled throughout Europe to conduct his music which established him both as a national cultural leader, and now a figure of international standing.
His reputation was enhanced by his opera, Háry János written in 1926. The best way a composer might get his opera music known to a larger audience is to set it as a concert suite, as did Prokofiev. It worked wonders also for Kodály with Hary Janos which has always been universally popular. It is often compared to Lieutenant Kijé by Prokofiev. Both are stories of soldiers. In the case of Kijé, the hero never existed at all but had to be invented to cover up for a mistake uttered by the Tsar. A tsar could not make mistakes. Hary contains whoppers told by a veteran hussar. Kodály himself wrote “According to Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze by one of the listeners, it is to be taken as confirmation of its truth.” So the whole shebang starts off with a gigantic orchestral sneeze which means the story including how Hary took on Napoleon single handed and had him begging for mercy has to be true. Kodaly also introduces a cimbalom, a dulcimer Hungarian instrument, rather like a zither but with little hammers instead of being plucked. Interestingly Debussy used it back in 1910 for a piece called “La Plus Que Lente” which is always played on the piano, there presumably being a dearth of cimbalom players, but I am lucky enough to have a recording of it on cimbalom played by Aldo Ciccolini.
The 1930’s may have been the Depression for some but Kodály blossomed out starting with the Dances of Marosszék (1930) and dedicated to Toscanini; the Dances of Galánta (1933), all presenting an authentic Hungarian national idiom in a manner that allowed it international popularity. His other orchestral works include the ‘Peacock Variations’, sub-titled Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (1938–39); a Concerto for Orchestra (1939–40). Now, as it happens, Bartok wrote his well known Concerto for Orchestra in 1943 and much has been written as to the originality of its name. No-one seems to comment that his great friend had already written a work with this title. Much later, in 1957–61, Kodaly wrote a symphony. Among his choral-orchestral are his Te Deum of 1936 and the Missa Brevis written 1942–44.
Kodály became absorbed in the problems of music education in general, writing a large amount of material on music in education and composing a large amount of music for children. In 1935 he embarked on a project to reform music teaching in schools. His work included several highly influential books which had a profound impact on musical education both inside and outside his home country. This led in the 1940’s to what became known as the “Kodály Method” and is still in use today.
A year after Emma’s death in 1958, Kodály, now aged 75 married Sarolta Péczely, his 19-year-old godchild and student of his at the Academy of Music. This was a new lease of life in which he lived happily until his death in in Budapest 1967 at the age of 84. He died one of the most respected figures in the Hungarian arts and dare I say satisfied to boot? Hold on. Did I say “with no juicy bits to tell”?
ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935)
Alban Berg’s name and repute derive from his being a student of Arnold Schoenberg, as had also been Anton Webern. The group of three, between 1903 and 1925, became known as the Second Viennese School. The idea of a “Second” Viennese School implies that there was a “First” Viennese School, which would have comprised Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, with Schubert sometimes added. Personally, I think it pretentious however much one may hold the lads of the second in esteem. It gives no credence to those in between times and I doubt that Mozart or Haydn would have accepted being referred to as a school, whilst Beethoven would have treated it with complete disdain.
Berg was born in Vienna and apart from a few short musical trips abroad and annual summer sojourns in the Austrian Alps, he spent his life in that city. That much he had in common with Schubert. He was at first inclined toward a literary career. However, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the ambience of the time and place. He must have displayed a natural talent – there are some who have it and more who don’t – but encouraged by his father and older brother, Berg began to compose music even though he had not as yet received any formal instruction. During this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.
Berg’s father died in 1900 leaving very little, certainly not enough for Berg to be able to afford lessons in composition. To add to his troubles, Berg became involved in an affair with Marie Scheuchl, a servant girl in the household who became pregnant and gave birth in December 1902 to a baby girl. The servant was of course to be blamed and was dismissed. All these incidents affected Berg so much that in the autumn of 1903, he attempted suicide. In September 1904 came a pivotal point in his career when he would meet Arnold Schoenberg, an event that decisively influenced his compositional path. Fortunately, Schoenberg was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and took him on as a non-paying pupil. Schoenberg was to become the guiding factor in shaping Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together over the next six years.
Berg presented his first public performances in 1907 largely to fellow members of the Schoenberg circle. There followed his single movement piano sonata in 1908. Each year there followed, at a somewhat slow pace, Four Songs (1909), a string quartet in 1910, the year his pupillage to Schoenberg ended. His musical gods and influences, apart from Schoenberg were Wagner and Mahler. Wagner had died back in 1883 but his all-pervading influence still remained. Mahler was the uncrowned king of the Vienna Opera, from 1897 till 1907 when he left the Opera and The Philharmonic to take over at New York. Mahler’s leanings were different. Mahler was the arch romantic, as OTT as Tchaikovsky. Schoenberg had come from much the same background, fourteen years Mahler’s junior, deeply romantic to begin with as in his Verklaerte Nacht but so overripe that he realized that he would need to do something to stop the rot from further setting in. It was against that background that he sought to do away with the accepted home key centres by abolishing tonality itself. In this Berg, a romantic himself, would follow down the same path. Mahler on the other hand continued with tonality, pressing it to its very limits such that it was by his death in 1911 on the edge of bursting apart and stretching itself like an elastic band towards atonality. Both schools were travelling in opposite directions and yet meeting up in the same place. Thus Mahler was recognized by the Second Viennese School who held him, for all his romantic extremes, in great esteem.
In 1911, Berg, came into a small inheritance and married Helene Nahowski, whom he had met in 1906, daughter of a high-ranking Austrian officer. The couple live on in Vienna, where he devoted the remainder of his life to music. It was their world in which they took part in the cultural and intellectual life of the city. His circle included composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, the writer and satirist Karl Kraus, the Austro-Czech pioneer of modern architecture Adolf Loos, and the poet Peter Altenberg.
Composers all fall into one of two distinctions. Either a composer composes inside his mind so that what comes out emerges as the finished article. Mozart and Schubert are just two such composers who appear to fall into this category. The vast majority have a rougher time of it. Their initial rough ideas once on paper or in sketch books have to be further drafted, worked on and forged into shape. Beethoven fell into this classification. With him what we hear sounds like the work of someone inspired and not the work of a musical sculptor who has had to hammer and chisel his way there. With Berg it was worse than that with his creative activity slowed down until there arrived a sudden rush of inspiration. His fastidious and perfectionist manner of composing would explain the relatively small number of his works. With Mozart I can imagine him whistling whilst he worked and out would come Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. With Berg? Well I can’t imagine an atonal composer whistling his note row!
In 1912 Berg completed “Five Orchestral Songs”, his first work since ending his studies with Schoenberg two years before. The inspiration for this composition came from postcard messages written by the eccentric Viennese poet, Richard Engländer under his nom de plume, Peter Altenberg. The texts of these postcards have been described as erotic. Berg felt prompted to use them to stretch further his modernism. It transpired that when two of these songs were presented at a concert of the Academic Society for Literature and Music in 1913, it provoked a near riot, in which performers and audience freely participated. 1913 was a good year for riots as Stravinsky also would discover.
The First World War would cause a general slow down on composition and performance affecting both sides of the conflict. Berg was no exception. During 1915 he was called up for military duty in the Austro-Hungarian Army although, because of his health, always frail, he was assigned to a desk job in the War Ministry. It was during this period that he first alighted on the theme of Wozzeck for his first opera. During the war he had found a summer home at a lakeside in Carinthia where he could work in quiet, shades of Mahler who had had his annual summer lakeside home to compose and escape the travails of conductorship. After the end of World War I, Berg, settled back home in Vienna, took on private pupils in composition and building international reputation in this field of activity.
Wozzeck took a long time to hit the boards. Although first performed in 1925 it was born out of an earlier period. The original story, entitled Woyzeck, was written by a German dramatist Georg Büchner (1813–37). Büchner, one of the famous revolutionaries of the period was best known for his play, “Danton’s Death”. For his part in the production of a revolutionary pamphlet he fled Germany and settled in Strasbourg. He died of typhus aged 24 and it is considered he would have been ranked alongside Goethe and Schiller had he survived. The text of Woyzeck was not discovered until 1879. Berg first began work on a libretto during the First World War, compressing 25 scenes into three acts. By 1917 he had completed the libretto but only began composing the score after the war. He completed the opera in 1921 and dedicated it to Alma Mahler, widow of the composer.
Wozzeck is an atonal work and was first performed in December 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, with Erich Kleiber conducting. It had needed no fewer than 137 rehearsals. Critical response was not slow in coming”
“As I was leaving the State Opera I had the sensation of having been not in a public theatre but in an insane asylum.… I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community”. Another critic described the music as “drawn from Wozzeck’s poor, worried, inarticulate, chaotic soul. It is a vision in sound.”
Once Wozzeck was completed and produced, Berg turned his attention to music in smaller dimension. His Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments was written in 1925, in honour of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday.
In May 1925 Berg met Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of Franz Werfel who was husband number 3 of Alma Mahler. Berg secretly and cryptically dedicated his Lyric Suite to Hanna. By then he had been happily married to Helene Nahowski for 14 years, but he was increasingly prone to taking time out and his feelings for Hanna were intoxicating. Over the course of five days they embarked on a torrid affair. Hanna certainly provided the spark for the Lyric Suite, a string quartet which he completed on 30 September 1926. Berg then searched for a theme for a new opera text. He found it by a combination of two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind out of which he created the central character for his opera, Lulu. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for a mere seven years until his death and, even then, the orchestration of the third act remained unfinished. Ultimately the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha was able to make a completed version and given it received its first performed in Paris in 1979. Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system.
It was from Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic that Berg derived the greatest source of income, most of which was to dry up once the Nazis came to power in 1933. Neither Berg nor Webern were of Jewish descent as was Schoenberg but they too were regarded as representatives of “degenerate art” and performances of their works in Germany became banned. There was a similar knock on effect in his native Austria which caused particular anguish for Berg. Abroad, however, he was recognized more and more as an Austrian composer, and his works were performed at leading musical festivals.
Berg’s last complete work, the violin concerto, originated under an unusual mix of circumstances. With diminishing income he was in need of new commissions. In 1935 he received one from the Russian born American violinist, Louis Krasner, for a violin concerto. It was a musical form he had not previously tackled and, as ever, he was slow to in getting going. What changed it was news of the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (by then Alma Werfel, ex-wife of Walter Gropius). Berg began to treat the work as a kind of epitaph, inscribing its dedication to the “memory of an angel”. Suddenly he had found his inspiration and worked at fever pitch in the quiet of his Carinthian lakeside villa. He completed the concerto in six weeks. It was first performed by Krasner in Barcelona in April 1936 but by this time it had become a requiem not only for Manon but for Alban Berg himself as well. He died on Christmas Eve in 1935 having after having received an insect bite and contracted septicaemia. He became very ill and, shortly after entering hospital, his death came suddenly. The violin concerto has become one of the major works of the genre, of highly personal, emotional content achieved through a 12 tone note row but which itself included a theme from a Bach chorale.
He is described as man of strikingly attractive appearance with reserved aristocratic bearing. In looks he reminds me a little of the actor Robert Donat. Possibly, as a result of his youthful looks comment is often made as to how young he was when he died. Yes, 50 is young but Tchaikovsky was 51 when he died and his 51 from his photos makes him seen well, veritably venerable.
With Berg one feels there was so much more to have been said. Sadly. we will never know.