Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

Zoltán Kodály
   Zoltán Kodály
M U S I C:
Zoltán Kodály, Modern Music, and the Folk Music of Hungary

Sue Bagust

The amalgamation of folk music and western 'art' music in the compositions of Béla Bartók is well known. That Bartók constructed a paradigm of musical modernism out of this amalgamation is also well known, as Bartók became one of the 'canonised' composers of innovatory twentieth century music. However, it is often forgotten that Zoltán Kodály, Bartók's collaborator in folk music studies, laid a substantial foundation for modern music in Hungary and initiated much of what became the basis for a new Hungarian art music.

The reasons for this loss of memory are many. Kodály was a visionary who could see possibilities in every corner and 'had a finger in every pie'. Besides his work as a composer (which went on for the whole of his life with only a one year break between 1921 and 1922), Kodály was active in the fields of music education, folk music research, ethnography, music history and aesthetics, music criticism, linguistics, language education and the history of literature.

As a composition teacher at the Budapest Academy he trained many young composers who he hoped would help him achieve the creation of a musically cultured Hungary. Kodály trained his students to make use of Hungarian folksong in their compositions, thus establishing a national style that fused the traditions of art music with the elements of Hungarian folk music. The first generation of Kodály's students came into international recognition in the 1920s and include György Kósa, Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Szabó, Tibor Harsányi, Geza Frid, Mátyás Seiber and Miklós Rózsa.

From 1925 onwards Kodály devoted his energies to music education after coming across a group of teacher training students on an excursion. Their terrible rendition of the song "Fanny Schneider so shocked him, he decided to bring about a revision of choral education in the country. From this time date many works for choirs, around 150 of them in all. Through his compositions, his educational writings, and his training of choirs Kodály succeeded in bringing about a new and flourishing choral movement in Hungary.

Kodály continued his compositional and teaching activities through the war, completing the composition of his Missa Brevis in the cellar of a Budapest convent. Many of his works during this time were patriotic, such as the songs to the revolutionary verses of Petőfi. He also helped save people from persecution and himself saw out the Battle of Budapest from the shelter of the opera house.

When peace came he served as the president of the Academy of Sciences from 1946 to 1949, besides being given other important positions in national life.

It is perhaps partly due to the multifarious nature of all his activities that the profile of Kodály the innovator and composer of new music is much less strong than that of his friend and collaborator Bartók. But as Laszlo Eosze writes in his article in the 'New Grove': " With Bartók he was one of the creators of a new Hungarian art music based on folk sources, and he established in Hungary a broad-based and high-level musical culture." [1] However, the perception of Kodály as a more conservative composer in comparison with Bartók, has also led to his works receiving much less exposure in the west.

Nevertheless, the task of establishing a new musical style that had the power to break the hegemony of German music in Hungary was accomplished mainly as a result of Kodály's ability to see beyond the obvious and to plough new ideas into the musical life of his country. As one commentator has said: "1905 was the decisive year for twentieth-century Hungarian music - the year in which Bartók met Kodály, who had independently begun to explore the virtually-unknown peasant songs of Hungary." [2]

These new ideas came from outside as well as inside Kodály's native culture.

Of prime importance was the influence of Debussy, whose music Kodály discovered while he was studying in Paris in 1906. Kodály recognised the potential of the musical innovations of Debussy for the development of new music in Hungary and pointed Bartók and others of his colleagues in the direction of France as a source for new inspiration. Debussy's use of scales other than the major-minor scales of western 'classical' music opened up the possibilities for breaking the mould of German Romanticism with its heavy emotionality and its long stretches of musical narrative. The possibility of a non-German musical style incorporating the scales and modes of folk music and the new devices of modernism began to be realised by Kodály, Bartók, and other composers in the first decade of the twentieth century. Bartók's First String Quartet (1908) and the orchestral 'Two Pictures' (1910) were the first of his works to synthesise the elements of peasant song and art music. Kodály's two quartets opp. 2 and 10 also demonstrate the musical style of a composer who has left German Romanticism far behind. In both these works the idioms of folk music are woven into the classical forms in a new and individual way.

Despite these innovations, however, the musical development of Kodály was to be always focussed inwards to his native country rather than embracing fully the international influences of modernism, as with Bartók. There was also with Kodály an emphasis on vocal music, especially choral music, which also led to the absorption of other influences such as that of Gregorian chant, Palestrina, and Bach. By the end of his life, Kodály became best known as a composer of music for choirs. For example, the two oratorios, the Psalmus hungaricus and the Budavari Te Deum incorporate the plagal harmony of Renaissance music with the use of Debussian whole tone scales and Gregorian chant, while still retaining the spirit of Hungarian folk music without actually quoting any. This demonstrates the fact that for Kodály, the music of the peasant songs was his 'mother tongue', a musical language he had learned as a child that had developed into maturity through his intensive research into Hungarian folk music. According to Kodály's biographer Laslo Eosze, whereas Bartók had not come into contact with the authentic Hungarian folk music before 1904, Kodály had been born from peasant stock and was therefore familiar with peasant melodies since his childhood. [3]

In the preface to the English edition of his book "Folk Music of Hungary"(1960), Kodály wrote of the confusion in people's minds between the gypsy music and the peasant music of Hungary:

"Generally speaking, Hungarian folk music is still identified with gypsy music and folksong is confused with popular art-music. Yet in its narrower sense, Hungarian folk music has little or nothing in common with the music offered over the radio as 'Hungarian folk tunes' or, since Sarasate, as 'gypsy melodies'. Performed by gypsy orchestras or in other popular arrangements, such music has been the basis of all generalisations about Hungarian music for nearly a hundred years...." [4]

In this book Kodály explains the rich variety of folk music he found on his visits to the Hungarian villages in which it still thrived in the day to day life of the people. The book also discusses the musical-technical aspects of the peasant songs, for example the way songs are often constructed out of the pentatonic (or five-note) scale instead of the eight note major-minor scale that is common to western music. There are in this book also chapters on specific forms such as Children's Songs, Laments, and Instrumental Music.

As far as its potential for a new art-music was concerned, the peasant music of Hungary is perhaps the most unusual in Europe due to its oriental origins. The migrant history of the Hungarian people and the geographical position of Hungary between the East and the West give the region a special significance as far as folk music is concerned. This significance was not only recorded and expounded by musicians such as Kodály, but fed a new national style of composition that ran counter to the style that was being taught by German musicians in the early part of the last century in such establishments such as the Budapest Academy.

As far as the importance of Kodály as one of the most important composers of twentieth century Hungary is concerned, the last word must go to Béla Bartók who said of him in 1928:

" When you ask me which works personify in the highest degree the Hungarian spirit, I shall turn to answer - the works of Kodály. His compositions amount to a well nigh devotional profession of faith in the Magyar soul. The external reason for this is the fact that his activity as a composer has been exclusively rooted in the soil of Hungarian peasant music. The inner reason, however, is Kodály's immovably grounded confidence and belief in his people's constructive power and in their future." [5]


1. Laszlo Eosze: Article on Zoltán Kodály, pages 137-145 in "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" Volume 10. ^

2. Colin Mason, "Hungary", p 340, Music in the Modern Age, F.W.Sternfield, (ed) London 1973. ^

3. Laslo Eosze, "Zoltán Kodály, His Life and Work", translated by Istvan Farkas and Gyula Gulyas (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1962), pp.11-12. ^

4. Zoltán Kodály, "Folk Music of Hungary", 2nd edition, London,1971, p. 5. ^

5. Bela Bartok, Pro Musica, October 1928. ^

The Following CDs are available from Amazon.com

Missa Brevis - first performed in 1945 in the cellars of the Budapest Opera House during the war.

Háry János - the work that more than any other established Kodály's international reputation. It is a dramatisation of the stories of the soldier Hary Janos and his exploits during the Napoleonic wars )

Psalmus Hungaricus

The Peacock Variations - this large scale orchestral piece is based on a very old folk melody with an oriental character

Sonata for Cello Solo op 8

String Quartets 1 and 2



Andrzej Wajda

Wajda in Hollywood


Jan Čulík:
Czech Mein Kampf

Mel Huang:
Lithuanian Elections

Catherine Lovatt:
Asylum Seekers

Sam Vaknin:
Yeltsin or Putin?


György Kurtág

Zoltán Kodály

Egy Kiss Erzsi Zene

Kurtág in Edinburgh


Hungarian Rock:
A History

Tears for Prog Rock

No Serbia this week
» Albania
» Austria
» Bulgaria
» Croatia
» Czech
» Estonia
» Hungary
» Latvia
» Lithuania
» Poland
» Romania
» Serbia
» Slovakia
» Slovenia
» Ukraine

UK Press Review


Central European Cultural Events in:





Music Shop


Bernd Eichinger's
Der Große Bagarozy

Andrzej Wajda





CER book offer:
After the Rain: How the West Lost the East
By Sam Vaknin


Feature Essay
Haider & Europe

CER Icon

» Overview
» Working with us
» Internships
» Submit article
» Our readership
» Contact us
» CER via e-mail
» Donations

» 1999 archive
» 2000 archive
» News Archive
» By subject
» By author
» Book reviews
» Kinoeye: film
» Archive search

» General links
» Conferences
» Calls for papers


Copyright © 2000 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved