Zoltán Kodály was a modern Hungarian great - an ethnomusicologist, philosopher, linguist, composer, a pioneer who developed his own unique technique of creating a social and cultural experience for reading music. His ‘Kodály’ method of music education is internationally acclaimed and added to his legendary status in his homeland.
Zoltán was born on the 16th of December, 1882 in Kecskemét, Hungary. He belonged to a musical family but displayed a knack for pursuing literary studies early on. His father was a railway official, so the family was continuously on the move. Until 1891, they lived in Galánta and before settling in Nagyszombat, where Zoltán received his first piano and violin lessons. He joined a cathedral choir, which was his first taste of choral music and singing. Soon, the cathedral music library became his second home. He became acquainted with cello to help out his father’s evening shows. In 1897, he had already started composing music, as one of his overtures debuted at the school orchestra. The following year saw the premiere of a chorus and orchestra.
In 1900, he started Compositional studies at the Liszt Music Academy. He also enrolled at the Eötvös Kollégium during summer and at Péter Pázmány University in autumn for academic studies. In 1905 he met with Emma Schlesinger, his first wife. He subsequently pursued higher studies in music in Paris and Berlin.
In 1905, Zoltán started visiting remote villages across the country to collect music, using phonograph cylinders to record them. The following year, he crafted a thesis on “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong.” In the same year, he met Béla Bartók, his compatriot and fellow composer. The two connected instantly and started collaborating to collect more folk songs. Zoltán took him under his wing, teaching him some of his methods as they continued their musical journey. Their interest was also part of a nationwide movement at that time - discovering the true Hungarian culture, which had been ruled and influenced by Germany for the past century.
Bartók and Kodály were aware that the Hungarian folk was basically gypsy music, which was hugely popular and predominantly played in theatres and cafes. By 1913, their collection was 3000 strong and included analyses, transcriptions, and other nuances that were crucial in establishing their own ethnomusicology. Kodály started making a name for himself outside Hungary in the same decade, mostly stimulated by his partnership with Bartók. However, partly due to World War I and its subsequent geopolitical upheavals in Europe, and also due to his own modesty and shyness, he didn’t enjoy any major public success going into the 1920s.
1923 was the year of Zoltán. First, he received a commission for celebrating the 50th anniversary marking the union of “Buda” and “Pest,” the two cities. He crafted the “Psalmus Hungaricus,” which portrayed the rule of a Hungarian rendition of Psalm LV in a 16th-century setting. This established him as a cultural icon in Hungary and also increased his international standing. It was swiftly followed by two operas titled “Háry Janos,” and “The Spinning Room.” Both gained international recognition along with orchestral dances from the pieces “Dances from Galánta,” and “Marossek.” All these compositions offered the authentic taste of Hungarian art form, further elevating their prominence across the globe.
Kodály’s other notable orchestral works are - “Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song,” which he completed between 1938 to 1939 (also famous as the ‘Peacock Variations’) and “Concerto for Orchestra,” which was completed in 1940. In 1936, he also composed “Budavár Te Deum,” a choral-orchestral piece that is held in quite high esteem, alongside “Missa Brevis” composed in the 1940s.
In 1941, his “concerto” premiered at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1943, he was also elected as an associate member at the “Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences.” In 1946, he became the President of the Hungarian Artistic Committee. The same year also marked his first trip across the Atlantic, as he conducted several concerts mostly featuring his own compositions. In 1947, he visited the Soviet Union and was named as an honorary citizen of Kecskemét, his birthplace. He also started his Presidential tenure at the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the same year and continued in that role until 1950. During his tenure, he created the ethnomusicological branch at the academy which became a beacon of his own work. In 1951, he organized the premiere of the State Folk Ensemble that included “Kálló Folk-Dances.”
In 1958, tragedy struck the Kodály household when Emma Gruber passed away after 49 years of marriage. Zoltán would tie the knot with Sarolta Péczely, his teenage student the very next year. In 1960, he visited the British Isles and was named as an honorary Doctorate by the University of Oxford. Next, he assumed the role of President at the International Folk-Music Committee in Canada. In 1966, during his second tour of the States, he presented a memorable lecture at Stanford University, where some of his prominent compositions were performed in front of him. He also premiered “Laudes Organi,” his last completed work in Atlanta, USA. In 1967, he passed away after a sudden heart attack.
A Brilliant Musical Mind
Kodály dedicated his adult life towards musical education and also crafted a substantial amount of material on various methods of teaching and composing music, especially for children’s use. He was also responsible for the reformation of music teaching in the lower and middle educational institutions of Hungary. His work also produced a number of highly influential books on music, especially the “Kodály Method.” It was the base of the Hungarian music education program that reached its pinnacle in the 1940s. Although Kodály didn’t write down the comprehensive set of principles, he did establish them. They were widely implemented by pedagogues after the Second World War.
Kodály’s own works and his collaborations with Bartók stood apart due to their freshness and originality in both musical content and form. What they achieved can be termed as a highly delicate blend of Western European music, heavily influenced by the impressionist, Late-Romantic, and Classical era, and duly ornamented by modernist traditions. These two had a profound respect and knowledge towards their nation's folk music and even explored areas of modern-day Romania and Slovakia, which were under Hungary before the First World War.
Kodály became a national hero, receiving the highest honors in his own country and abroad, and rightly so. His authority wasn’t limited to his musical exploits, it continues to flourish through his philosophy. His reputation as an academic, his dedication to opening the thresholds of music to children, his enormous volume of choral exercises, which he explicitly composed for amateur singers ensured that he is a true champion of music. His estimable career suggests that offering imperishable masterpieces wasn’t his sole function. He did more. He worked as if he owed a debt to the musical state, to ensure that the native traditions can flourish, and the less gifted can sparkle. He followed a larger purpose of relating to the music of the society, how it can affect those around the world, how he can help them appreciate not only his compositions but music in any form or stature. Zoltán Kodály was more than a composer.