Zoltán Kodály (1882 - 1967)

Born on 16 December 1882 at Kecskemét (some 50 miles south east of Budapest), Zoltán Kodály entered Pázmány University in Budapest in 1900, studying German and Hungarian while taking composition lessons at the Academy of Music with Hans Koessler. His doctoral thesis in 1906 was a study of Hungarian folk song, in the collection and investigation of which he was already preoccupied along with his contemporary Béla Bartók.

After an intensive period of study in Berlin, Kodály returned to Hungary to join the Academy, where in 1908 he took over its first year composition class. Over the following years he continued his activities both as a composer and a collector of folk song. He latterly became deputy director of the Academy, which had been granted university status in the short-lived Hungarian Republic established in 1919, but he was temporarily barred from teaching after the collapse of the Republic four months later and the coming to power of Admiral Horthy.

Kodály’s music received growing international attention, with several publications as well as increasing performances abroad. Having resumed his duties as teacher, Kodály continued to exercise a strong influence upon younger composers and had an even greater effect over music education in Hungary. His main task was to establish a national Hungarian musical tradition, and for this to be absorbed into a recognisably Hungarian form of art music. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Kodály remained in Hungary whereas Bartók (another opponent of the Horthy regime) found refuge in the United States. Kodály had been accorded various honours at home, and this continued after the advent of communist rule, along with the international recognition of his work as a composer and educator. He died in Budapest on 6 March 1967.

Stage Works

Kodály wrote relatively little for the stage. His Singspiel or musical play Háry János, more widely known through the orchestral excerpts heard frequently in the concert hall, deals with the alleged exploits of an old soldier, János, who has a vivid imagination and no regard for truth or probability. These include his single-handed defeat of Napoleon and the French armies.

Orchestral Music

In addition to the orchestral suite derived from Háry János, Kodály’s Marosszék and Galanta Dances and the Peacock Variations make powerful use of Hungarian folk material.

Choral Music

Kodály wrote a great deal of choral and vocal music, much of it for his choral method, an essential element in his plan for general musical education. He won his greatest early success with Psalmus hungaricus in 1923, and in 1936 celebrated the 250th anniversary of the reconquest of Buda from the Turks with a Te Deum. His Missa brevis was written during the later years of the First World War. The unaccompanied choral work Jesus and the Traders has always proved effective.

Chamber Music

Among relatively few compositions by Kodály for smaller ensembles may be included useful additions to the repertoire for two violins and viola in a Trio of 1899 and a later Serenade. In addition to two string quartets, there is a duo for violin and cello, of which an unkind critic claimed that it sounded as if the two instruments had taken sides in the war and tried to settle it between themselves. Kodály wrote sonatas for cello and piano and for unaccompanied cello.