Zoltan Kodaly: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Zoltan Kodaly

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Zoltan Kodaly: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Zoltan Kodaly

Zoltan Kodaly: Overview

Zoltan Kodaly: Zoltan Kodaly (b. Kecskemet, 16 Dec 1882; d. Budapest, 6 March 1967).

Zoltan Kodaly was born in Kecskemet in central Hungary. Both his parents were musical, his father being a violinist and his mother a pianist, so that from the first the boy was brought into contact with living music. He often heard chamber music at home, and later took up the 'cello himself to help his father make up a quartet. Like Bartok's family, the Kodalys moved house several times during Zoltan Kodaly's childhood: they lived successively in Szob, Galanta and Nagyyszombat, before Zoltan Kodaly went to Budapest in 1900 to study at the Academy of Music. He had already begun to compose, but without, it seems, any marked sense of aim. At the Academy, he came across Brahm's music for the first time, and most of his student works (like those of his older contemporary, Dohnanyi) sound more or less Brahmsian. Later, he came under the influence of Debussy. But, as with Bartok again, the determining influence of this period was Hungarian folk music, which Zoltan Kodaly began by researching academically and then, in 1905, by field research with recording cylinders. His early collecting expeditions were undertaken with Bartok, and their joint publications, starting in 1907, were the most systematic and scholarly of their kind to that date. Meanwhile, late in 1906, Zoltan Kodaly visited Berlin, going on to Paris early in 1907, but returning to Budapest later that year to take up a teaching post at the Academy. From then until his death sixty years later teaching was to remain a major activity for Zoltan Kodaly.

By the time war broke out in 1914, he had also written a good deal of music, though nothing as momentous as Bartok's best works of that period. The first mature orchestral work, Summer Evening, dates from 1906, and after this come a number of works for small instrumental groups, the First Quartet (1909), the Sonata for 'cello and piano (1910), and some piano pieces, Op. 3, whose advanced idiom provoked discussion when they were played in Paris by Tivadar Szanto in 1910. During the war further chamber works appeared: a Second String Quartet (1918), and the Sonata for solo 'cello (1915). All these works were heard in Budapest but created no stir, and after the war Zoltan Kodaly's reputation was not sufficient to protect him against suspension from the Academy by the bureaucratic regime which succeeded the brief revolutionary phase of 1919. He was eventually reinstated in 1922. The following year he was commissioned, with Bartok and Dohnanyi, to supply a new work for a concert in honour of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Pest and Buda. His contribution was the Psalmus Hungarieus, the first of a series of large-scale religious choral works which were at last to bring Zoltan Kodaly a genuinely international reputation. For a similar occasion in 1936 - the 250th anniversary of the expulsion of the Turks from Buda - he wrote the so-called Budavdh Te Deum. By this time he was a national hero, a kind of Hungarian Sibelius, and his work had become an aspect of the nation's identity, in sharp contrast with that of Bartok, who was already drawing away from a direct involvement in Hungarian musical life. Significantly, Zoltan Kodaly felt able to stay in Hungary during World War II, while Bartok fled in 1940 to the USA. But this is not to say that Zoltan Kodaly collaborated with the Germans or their puppet government. He seems, on the contrary, to have behaved with dignity and courage, particularly during the Russian siege of Budapest in 1944. He had resigned from his professorship at the Academy in 1941. In 1944 he completed his Missa Brevis, in its version for chorus and orchestra. When the war ended it was inevitable that Zoltan Kodaly would be regarded as a national institution and, musically, as practically an oracle.

Between 1945 and his death on the 6th March 1967 his power within Hungarian music was almost total. His music-teaching system, based on singing, was adopted throughout the country. His presence unquestionably stimulated new music, though his own increasing conservatism of taste made it hard for really new music to get official approval, even after the 1956 revolution, when official control of music began to relax. He himself composed rather little. By far his most substantial post-war work is the Symphony in C, completed in 1961 . But this is not comparable in quality with the best orchestral works of the pre-war years including the Suite from the opera Hdry Jdnos (1925), the two sets of dances from Marosszek (1930) and Galanta (1933), the Peacock Variations (1939), or the short but impressive Concerto for Orchestra (1940). He travelled a good deal, especially to the USA, and at home is said to have kept fit by long walks interspersed with short, sharp sprints. This austere regime, so far as it went, must greatly have reinforced his popular image in Hungary as a Christ-like figure, bearded, benign but resolute, humble but omniscient, a suitable guide for his people through the tangled and bewildering complexities of post-war music.

It is Zoltan Kodaly, rather than Bartok, who most closely resembles the great 'nationalmonument' composers of the 20th century: Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Neilsen. Like Vaughan Williams his style was mainly formed from contact with folk music and ancient church music, and unlike Bartok he avoided 'distorting' this material into an obscure or introspective personal style. Zoltan Kodaly's idiom remains open, diatonic, based on melody and ornament, lyrical with epic connotations, rhapsodic. Before the war, in particular, he composed quantities of simple choral works intended as an extension of music-education. Indeed, he practically invented the idea of the choral festival in Hungary, modelling it, it has been said, on the Three Choirs' Festival in England. Of his three operas, The Spinning-Room (definitive version 1931), is based exclusively on folk tunes, while Hdry JAnos contains so much undigested folk music mixed up with long stretches of dialogue as seriously to inhibit its success as music drama. On the other hand Zoltan Kodaly's original music for this opera, much of which is in the well-known suite, is masterly and characteristic and enshrines the best features of his style: its picturesque tunefulness and colour (likethe twanging of the cimbalom in the Intermezzo), its rigorous use of fourths as a basis for both melody and harmony, its swinging sense of rhythm, its piquant use of dissonance (a remnant, perhaps, of Debussy's influence), its tender lyricism. A certain whimsicality seems to anticipate the Prokofiev of Lieutenant Kije. On the other hand, the music remains slightly objective and lacks a strong personal impulse, which may be why Zoltan Kodaly's more elaborate instrumental works, like the Solo 'Cello Sonata or the Peacock Variations, have a tendency to hang fire. This could also explain why, since his death, Zoltan Kodaly's musical influence in Hungary has been less than might have been predicted, while that of Bartok has grown and grown.

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