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Come and see the thousand faces of Hungary and the Hungarian culture

Zoltan Kodaly

(16 Dec 1882 - 6 March 1967)

Zoltan Kodaly was born in Kecskemet, Hungary in 1882, and died in Budapest, Hungary in 1967. A colleague of Bela Bartok, he was one of the most prominent figures of Hungarian folk music collection and research, a world-renowned Hungarian composer. His orchestral music was played everywhere from Chicago to Amsterdam and the Scala in Milan, even during his lifetime. According to an archive recording, Kodaly believed that music is nourishment that sets you free (a zene táplálék, mely felszabadít). He was convinced that everyone has a right to music, and teaching of music shouldn’t be confined to the training of a musical elite.

These universal ideas, and the music education methods devised by him, as well as his compositions imbued with the folk music of Hungary immortalized him in his own country as well as abroad. Through his and Bela Bartok’s contribution, Hungary became a musical world power in the 20th century.

Called to change the world through music

He was born into a family of music enthusiasts, and he could often listen to his mom play the piano at home. His father was a rail worker, so the family had to move several times, and this is how they arrived to Galanta, a village on a railway line between Vienna and Budapest, in present-day Slovakia. At that time, Galanta’s population was a mixture of Hungarians, Slovaks and Germans so Kodaly had an opportunity to learn about the folk traditions of all three nations. It was here where he first heard folk music, Gypsy music, folk dances, and czardas (csárdás). These childhood memories inspired his “Dances of Galanta”, composed in 1933 in honor of the Budapest Philharmony’s 80th anniversary.

The young Kodaly learned to play the piano and string instruments, and at age 16 he composed an overture for his high school orchestra. In 1900 he went to Budapest to study at the Academy of Music, and he graduated with a degree in Hungarian and German philology as well as in composition.

The folk song

During his university years, Kodaly decided that he would write his doctoral dissertation on the subject of the Hungarian folk song. During a trip to a village he realized the difference between the tunes found on sheet music and those that arose from the lips of the folk singers. This, and his becoming familiar with the work of etnographer Bela Vikar, who collected folk music with a phonograph, inspired Kodaly to learn and record folk songs.

In 1905 he began his collaboration with Bartok, collecting and transcribing folksongs survived thus far in the oral traditions of the Hungarian peasants. These were “exotic sounding” songs in the pentatone scale (do, re, me, sol, la), sung during work in the village. It is thanks to Kodaly and Bartok that these folk songs have been preserved to this day, and that they are part of modern music education.

His work and reputation

By 1910 Kodaly and Bartok have been collecting folk songs for five years, and this is when Kodaly starts to publish his compositions: "String Quartet No. 1" (1910), "Duo for violin and cello" (1914), and "Belated Melodies" and "String Quartet No. 2" (1916). Kodaly and Bartok worked side by side as composers as well, and their first quartets were played in companion concerts, marking the emergence of 20th-century Hungarian music. When the new Hungarian chamber music arrived to concert halls abroad, it earned the “young barbarians” title to Bartok and Kodaly, who introduced these new sounds inspired by folk music.

The great breakthrough in Kodaly’s career came in 1923, when he published his accompanied choral work, "Psalmus Hungaricus", and in 1926, when the "Hary Janos Suite" was introduced in the Budapest Opera House. In 1929-1930 Toscanini conducted several Kodaly compositions with the New York Symphony, including "Summer Evening" (Nyári este), an early composition revised by Kodaly, according to Toscanini’s suggestions.

1932 marks the premier of "The Spinning Room" (Székely fonó) in the Budapest Opera; in 1936 Kodaly celebrates the 250th anniversary of the re-conquest of Buda from the Turks with a "Te Deum", and in 1937 he completes the "Peacock Variations". His "Missa brevis" was written during the later years of the 1939-45 war, his "Epitaphium Joannis Hunyadi" in 1965, and "Laudes organi" in 1966. He remained active as a composer until his death in 1967.


Kodaly Memorial Year 2007