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Zoltán Kodály

biography

“If I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of Hungarian spirit, I would answer Kodály. His work proves his faith in the Hungarian spirit. The obvious explanation is that all Kodály’s composing activity is rooted only in Hungarian soil, but the deep inner reason is his unshakable faith and trust in the constructive power and future of his people.”    
Bela Bartók

Zoltan Kodály was a prominent Hungarian composer, educator, ethnomusicologist, linguist, author and philosopher. Along with Bartók and Ligeti, he is one of the three major figures in Hungarian music this century. Kodály's many compositions show a strong affinity to the folk traditions of his country and include ballad operas, orchestral works, chamber-music, choral works, songs, folk song arrangements and music for children.

Indeed, everything Kodály composed after Bartók’s statements of the 1920s fully confirms them: He was no revolutionary innovator, but a summarizer. Nevertheless, the style he created from the folk monody of ancient, oriental extraction and from the new rich harmony of Western art music is homogeneous, individual and new.

Kodály was born on 16 December 1882 in Kecskemét, a small town in central Hungary. Much of his childhood was spent in the Hungarian villages. It was here that Kodály developed a great love for the Hungarian countryside and for the folk traditions of his culture.

From a young age Kodály showed great aptitude and interest in music. His father, an amateur musician, encouraged this interest, particularly the young boy's interest in composition. By the time Kodály reached secondary school he was composing his own music. After completing his school education, Kodály studied at The Franz Liszt Academy (Hungary's most prestigious music institution) and the University of Hungary where he earned a degree in Hun-garian, German and then, later, a Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics.

As composer, Kodály did much to bridge the gap between Hungarian folk music and the European art music tradition. The political climate of Hungary during the 1900s was such that it had strong economic ties with Austria. The music of the Hungarian upper class was Viennese classical music and the language spoken by educated Hungarians was German. The peasant population, on the other hand, spoke Hungarian and had a thriving folk music tradition of its own. Yet this distinctly Hungarian music was not regarded highly by both profes-sional musicians and the upper class that made up the concert audiences.

In the early 1900s, Kodály and his colleague, Béla Bartók turned their backs on the European music culture of Hungary and focused their attention on their own native folk music traditions. In 1905 they set off on the first of many expeditions to collect and gather traditional Hungarian folk music. Within a year they had arranged and published a collection of 20 folk songs.

Kodaly's work was not immediately accepted by "the establishment" who regarded this folk music to be uncultured and unrefined. Yet undeterred, Kodaly went on many more expeditions to collect and transcribe folk music. In a number of his compositions he began to incorporate actual folk melodies that he had gathered. In 1921 and 1937, Kodály and Bartók published two significant books on the subject of Hungarian folk music. The quality and scholarship of these works caused them to receive worldwide recognition in the field of ethnomusicology.

In later years Kodály was president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, president of the International Folk Music Council, and honorary president of the International Society for Music Education. In addition to his more than busy schedule, Kodály spent a lot of time visiting schools and talking to music educators. He was actively involved in the development and refinement of music textbooks and other materials for use in the classroom. On the day he died, 6 March 1967 he was to carry out one of his many school visits.

"Kodály’s compositions are characterized mainly by rich melodic invention, a perfect sense of form, a certain predilection for melancholy and uncertainty. He does not seek Dionysian intoxication – he strives for inner contemplation … His music is not of the kind described nowadays as modern. It has nothing to do with the new atonal, bitonal and polytonal music – everything in it based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is never-theless new; he says things that have never been uttered before and demonstrates thereby that the tonal principle has not lost its raison d’être as yet. "    
Bela Bartók

book tip

László Eösze:
"Zoltán Kodály, sein Leben und Werk"
Boosey & Hawkes GmbH, Bonn, 1964

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Zoltan Kodaly unter den Musikern der Zukunft

...among the musicians of the future."