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”?