This year marks the 130th birth anniversary of the Hungarian composer, folk music expert and educator Zoltán Kodály. He is best known internationally as the creator of the Kodály Method, a music teaching method used across the world.
In the field of music education, Kodály stands as one of the great seminal figures of the 20th century. His life spanning over sixty years was devoted to advocating the central role of music in education, stating numerous times that music is unconditionally necessary to the development of a human being. With his own words: Music is a spiritual food for which there is no substitute. There is no complete spiritual life without music, for the human soul has regions which can be illuminated only by music. Legends of many people deem music to be of divine origin; thus, when we have reached the boundaries of human understanding, music points beyond, into a world that cannot be explored but merely guessed at. A member of the Academy of Sciences, Kodály was honored with the prestigious Kossuth Award – the highest award given to any performing artist in all of Hungary – three times.
Kodály was born on December 16, 1881 in Kecskemét to his stationmaster father Frigyes and mother Paulina. They moved briefly to Szob and then to Galánta where Kodály, by his own admission, spent the best seven years of his life from 1885 to 1892 from the ages of three to ten. Kodály later immortalized these years in his ‘Dances of Galánta.’ Kodály’s formative musical experiences included not only excellent chamber music at home with musically talented parents but also the “ancient, unspoiled tunes of the Hungarian countryside.” Among his classmates were children whose parents formed the well-known Mihók gypsy band. Kodály played violin in the school orchestra and sang in the cathedral choir. His talents as a composer began to emerge quite early. He produced an overture for the school orchestra which was performed in 1898 and received favorable comments in the Pozsony (now Nratislava, Slovakia) paper, the Westungarisher Grenzbote. At the age of eighteen, he moved to university in Budapest to study Hungarian and German Language and Literature in the Faculty of Philosophy, and Composition in the Academy of Music. He later studied at the Budapest Conservatory between 1900 and 1904. In 1905, he graduated as a teacher in Hungarian and German languages and literature, but instead of taking up teaching, he started visiting remote villages to collect songs, recording them on phonograph cylinders. In 1906 he wrote the thesis on Hungarian folk song ("Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folksong"). Around this time, Kodály met fellow composer Béla Bartók, whom he took under his wing and introduced to some of the methods involved in folk song collecting. The two became lifelong friends and champions of each other's music.
Kodály was mesmerized by folk music, something not considered too trendy at the time. He said: “We have so few written recollections of old Hungarian music that there cannot be a concept of Hungarian music history without folk music. As folk language is similar to the old language in many regards, folk music is forced to supplement missing historical memories. From an artistic perspective, it means more to us than to the people that have developed a unique musical style, centuries ago. Here, composed music has absorbed folk music, and a German composer like Bach or Beethoven finds the elements that we ourselves can only search for in our villages, namely, the organic life of a national tradition.”
Kodály began teaching musicology at the Academy of Music in 1907, a year later beginning to teach composition. Due to the outbreak of the First World War and subsequent major geopolitical changes in the region and partly because of the personal shyness, Kodály had no major public success until 1923 when his Psalmus Hungaricus premiered at a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest (Bartók's Dance Suite premiered on the same occasion.) In no time, Kodály became one of the foremost composers of Hungary. His works show a great originality of form and content, a very interesting blend of highly sophisticated mastery in the Western-European style of music, including classical, late-romantic, impressionistic and modernist tradition and – on the other hand – profound knowledge and respect for the folk music in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Albania and other Eastern-European countries. Kodály was very interested in the problems of music education, and he wrote a large amount of material on music education methods as well as composing a large amount of music for children. Beginning in 1935, along with colleague Jenô Ádám, he embarked on a long term project to reform music teaching in the lower and middle schools. His work resulted in the publication of several highly influential books. The Hungarian music education method that developed in the 1940s became the basis for what is called the "Kodály Method". Kodály himself did not write a comprehensive method, but he did establish a set of principles to follow in music education. The famous Kodály method of teaching music is today used across the world. The master died in Budapest on March 16, 1967 of a heart attack.
DID YOU KNOW?
Kodály said in 1956: “Good music has to be fought for, and this fight cannot be fought with any success by one country alone within its boundaries.”
During the German occupation, Kodály was active saving Jews until he himself had to hide in the basement of a convent where he wrote.
In the motion picture Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a visual learning aid distributed to members of a conference of UFOlogists was named "Zoltán Kodály" and referenced musical notes as hand signals.