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March 6, 2017: the 50th anniversary of the death of Zoltán Kodály. We remember him by reprinting a commemorative article by musicologist Imre Fábián, published in the Hungarian Review in 1967.
IN MEMORIAM ZOLTÁN KODÁLY
Zoltán Kodály was one of the great classical figures in the history of Hungarian music. He was classical in the sense that his life's work was a unified and complete whole, to an extent hardly paralleled in the present century. And he was also classical in the history of Hungarian music through his epoch-making, outstanding part in shaping its course. In order to understand this, we must know something about the special Hungarian conditions and the atmosphere that prevailed at the outset of his career.
“PUBLIC OPINION DEMANDED HUNGARIAN WAYS”
On December 16th, 1882, when Kodály was born in the small town of Kecskemét on the Great Hungarian Plain, Hungarian music was subject to a unilateral German influence as indeed it was throughout the latter part of the last century. The Academy of Music, founded by Liszt, was staffed by German-trained professors. Kodály's master, János Koessler, was himself a disciple of the Brahms school. His opinion of the Hungarian style of music was, according to Kodály's words, that "in higher music the Hungarian character cannot offer more than an occasional and sparing dash of colour.”
But at the turn of the century the youth of Hungary yearned for independence and a true Hungarian entity. "Public opinion demanded that Hungarian should be used in every walk of life," wrote Kodály. "Hungarian words of command in the army, and the Hungarian Anthem in place of the Gott erhalte." Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, two young students at the Academy of Music, also sought the true voice of the Hungarian nation, and they were soon to discover it, in the people's ancient folk music. The spring of 1905, when Kodály set out on his first tour to collect folk songs, is a date which was to be a turning point in the history of Hungarian music.
"Man is governed by his desires," wrote Kodály, "and my desires led me to where more work was needed to achieve fewer results. In order to understand me, you must remember the kind of world there was here, in Pest, when we were young. The cult of Wagner was then at its height. The same kind of pieces were being played at concerts, and if it was not for the fact that the programme happened to be in Hungarian, you might well have thought you were in a small German town. . . It is not surprising that in so thoroughly German a world we were seized by an intense yearning for a true Hungary, that could not be found in Pest anywhere, for in Pest one might almost say that German was the official language in music."
THE DISCOVERY OF THE ANCIENT FOLK SONG
Kodály and, under his influence, Béla Bartók, discovered an almost untouched and unknown musical culture, the ancient songs of the Hungarians sung by peasant singers in remote villages. These songs were completely unfamiliar to the Hungarian public. At this time it was the so-called "Magyar tunes," for the greater part the works of nineteenth-century composers—gipsy music in fact—that were considered to be the true Hungarian music. The musicians who now discovered this vast treasury of melodies had a double task: to prove that the folk songs were not only more valuable, and front the artistic point of view more important than the popular tunes, but that they were also more genuinely Hungarian. This struggle against that conservative section of Hungarian society that was "not yet sufficiently Hungarian, yet no longer sufficiently naive and not yet sufficiently cultured for these songs to penetrate to their hearts," was one that was to accompany Kodály throughout his long life.
Hardly had he noted down the first few hundred real folk songs of the Hungarian people than the young Kodály clearly realized the enormous significance of the work to be done. The folk songs would have to be collected and classified with scientific thoroughness, and a new language and style in composed music would have to be created from them. To do this, and to pass it all on to a comprehending, musically cultured society, was a task for many generations. Kodály, recognizing his vocation as a composer, a research worker and teacher, embarked on the task. And if now, after his death, we look back upon the life's work of the 85-year-old master, as a composer, a musicologist and a pedagogue, we can discern his immense significance in all three fields.
"Our folk music," he wrote over forty years ago, "means immeasurably more to us than it does to the German, the French or the Italian musician. In these countries composed music has for the greater part absorbed the essence of their folk music. The spirit of these peoples’ lives on in their composed music. The spirit of the Hungarian people, since Hungarian composed music is still in its infancy, lives almost exclusively in the folk music." For Kodály the composer, this folk music was at the same time the valuable heritage of Hungary's musical past. One of his cycles of songs is entitled Belated Melodies, in expression of the fact that Kodály, as a creative artist, had to conceive not only the future of Hungarian music, but also its past. It was this past that he resuscitated in the Marosszék Dances recalling the image of the "former fairy-land" of Transylvania, in the Galánta Dances inspired by nineteenth-century recruiting music, the songs and choruses in which he set to music the works of Hungarian classical poets, in the Peacock Variations where he chose ancient folk songs as the themes of his symphonic variations, and in putting the legendary story-teller Háry János on the stage of the opera.
"EUROPEAN AND HUNGARIAN"
It was in March 1910, that Kodály held his first composer's concert. Ever since then, his creative work has progressed unbroken along one and the same course, with neither path-seeking nor deviations. "European and Hungarian", this is an ever recurring theme in all his writing, and he has achieved an exemplary synthesis of the two in his works. Next to folk music, it was the new French music, Debussy's in particular, that exerted a powerful influence on him. Bartók, in his autobiography, furnishes an explanation for the meeting of the two: "When, at Kodály's s suggestion, I became acquainted with the works of Debussy and began to study them, I noted with surprise that certain pentatonic features identical to those of our folk music also play a big part in the melodies of Debussy " These "modern" features of Hungarian folk music, at the same time fitted well into the mainstream of modern, twentieth-century music.
Bartók and Kodály, the masters of the new Hungarian music were thus able to take the decisive steps in creating both a Hungarian and a new music, at one and the same time. While Bartók was open to all the stylistic innovations of twentieth-century music, and almost all the musical strivings of our age left their mark upon his art, Kodály, as a Hungarian classical composer, raised the Hungarian music that he had created out of folk music, to European heights. As Bartók put it in 1921: "Kodály's music is not the type of art that is nowadays called modern. It has no links at all with the new atonal, bitonal and polytonal music. In his art everything is still based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is nevertheless new, for he says things the like of which has never yet been said."
It was in this "new idiom" that Kodály wrote his grandiose choral works, in which Hungarian tunefulness combines with classical discipline and the severity of Palestrina. This is the language of his most important oratorical work, the Psalmus Hungaricus, a cantata for tenor solo, mixed choir and orchestra, based on the verses of a sixteenth-century Hungarian poet. This work also succeeded in winning world fame for its author, who was henceforth celebrated as the most renowned Hungarian composer after Bartók. In 1936, at the pinnacle of fame, he wrote Te Deum of Buda Castle, and in 1961, at the age of 79, a symphonic work, the First Symphony, to be presented in Lucerne by Ferenc Fricsay.
Kodály, the composer, created his music out of folklore, yet without becoming a "folklorist." His horizon was a very much wider one, his thoughts more universal. He expressed the voice of a nation in his music. Bartók wrote of him: "If I were asked in what works the Hungarian spirit has been most perfectly expressed, my answer could only be that it is in the works of Kodály".
“MUSIC BELONGS TO EVERYBODY!”
It was this unflinching faith that also governed Kodály's work as an educator. As early as 1929, he was saying: "We must lead the masses towards music." Five years later he declared: "All our tasks can be summed up in one word: education. But it must be mutual. The Hungarian masses must first be brought closer to higher, artistic music. But the exclusive devotees of the latter cannot live here in an ivory tower. They must take cognizance of the fact that there is a separate, Hungarian musical tradition."
In 1952, a motto was born for the whole of Kodály's work and teaching: "Music belongs to everybody!" He, who through almost sixty years had trained entire generations of composers at the Academy of Music, was no longer content to confine himself to higher education. He wanted music to reach everybody.
AN UNPARALLELLED MUSICOLOGICAL INSTITUTION
Kodály's method of Hungarian musical instruction is based on folk music. This, however, necessitated the scientific analysis and systematic arrangement of the folk music the research workers had collected. In this too, Kodály's achievement has been exemplary. As a folk-musicologist he was one of the most eminent of our times. The Folk Music Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which he established, now continues the work that Kodály bean with Bartók—the scientific publication of Hungarian folk music.
When it was established, Kodály proudly declared: "The Government of the Hungarian People's Republic has established an institution that is so far unparalleled in the field of international musicology."
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Kodály, the scholar of folk music, the President of the International Folk Music Council, the educator, the founder of an internationally known system of musical instruction, the composer, the author of works of permanent value, the active participant in public affairs, the recipient of numerous Hungarian and foreign decorations—is no more. On this occasion let us quote what he said of Bartók: "He has gone. It is up to those who remain to open up the way before his works, so that they can go where they were intended to go: to the hearts of all men."
The International Kodály Society is active in 34 countries and has Affiliated National Organizations in 16 countries. The IKS was founded in 1975 in Kecskemét, Hungary to promote the musical, educational and cultural concepts associated with Zoltán Kodály for the benefit of music generally and in particular for the educational advancement of youth. The Society serves as an international forum for all who are active in the spirit of the Hungarian master as composer, scholar and educator.
Check out the Call for Papers for the 23rd International Kodály Symposium 2017 here.