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Slowly across the string your bow travels, drawing out a long line with gravity and grace. Footfalls in a forest, the silent dark; a pool of water, a clearing: Matteo keeps pace, a discreet presence in a dim landscape. The quiet beauty of this dirge makes for a solemn encore. Does it mean you haven’t forgotten El Salvador, the woman mourning the girl she couldn’t be? Does it mean that even if you’re on top of the world, you know what it’s like to be on the bottom? Or does it simply mean you need to ease yourself down after the incredible high of Tzigane? The elegy unfolds, your hands serving your heart as you shape raw emotion into subtle shades of feeling. Sustaining the contours of the slow-moving lines, between pressure and speed, tension and release, your bow finds a balance that makes the music flow. And now Matteo sketches out a new motif, another consolation for loss. Your violin renews its plaintive search with greater intensity—but just what is it you are searching for?
Over the terrain of the music your hand moves the bow, like a blind man his fingers over something unknown. And I, too, move like a blind man: Who are you, Marietta? The force and refinement, the power and delicacy, that I first sensed in you on that patio in Princeton didn’t prepare me for the intensity you’ve shown me tonight. God, what radiant musicality! What splendour! You inhabit music like a calligrapher a line, a hawk the wind, a dancer the dance. Is the ephemeral, then, an element in your ethics of living? Is living the moment all that matters? Or is it simply a question of grace? Hush! Arpeggiated chords glitter; sunlight streams into the forest. The music opens out and dilates, flowing forward in long, arching lines. Within each string your bow discovers nuances of colour; in the tiny space between fingerboard and bridge, it finds an infinity of tenderness. Over what void do you weave this fabric, from what dead do you withdraw your attachment? In a flourish you bring the poignancy to a higher pitch, and then at the place where the bow lives in the string you breathe with more abandon, and let the music dissolve into silence…
Along with Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály is one of the two major figures in Hungarian music in the twentieth century. Composer, pioneering ethnomusicologist, groundbreaking educationalist and critic, Kodály enjoyed a status in his native land that is perhaps unrivalled by any other figure anywhere else in the world.
Kodály was born in Kecskemét, in Hungary, on 16 December 1882. Though from a musical family, his initial inclination was towards literary studies. As his father was a railway official, the Kodály family had a rather peripatetic existence: from 1884 until 1891 they lived in Galánta (later to be immortalised in the orchestral dances Kodály based on folk music from the area), then moving to Nagyszombat, where Zoltán studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir—an early introduction to the importance of choral singing. He explored the scores in the cathedral music library, and taught himself the cello to make up the numbers for his father’s domestic quartet-evenings. And he was already composing: in 1897 the school orchestra played an overture of his, to be followed by a Mass for chorus and orchestra a year later.
His higher education began at the University of Sciences in Budapest in 1900, but the call of music proved too strong and in 1902 he enrolled at the Academy of Music, taking a Ph.D. in 1906 with a thesis entitled ‘Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folk Song’. He was now composing prolifically–and he had already begun his fieldtrips, collecting folksongs in the Hungarian countryside with his close friend Béla Bartók; though they published their first joint collection early on, it was not until 1951 that their comprehensive critical edition of Hungarian folksongs appeared.
As with Bartók, Kodály’s own music was coloured by the joint influence of Hungarian folksong and of Debussy and French impressionism (he spent some months in Paris, where he attended Widor’s lectures). On his return to Budapest in 1907 he was appointed teacher of theory at the Academy of Music, and a year later he began to teach composition. He was to teach there for the rest of his life: upon his retirement as a professor, he was brought back as the Director of the Academy in 1945.
His compositions began to make headway outside Hungary around 1910, stimulated by concerts in which Bartók and Kodály presented their own music. The real breakthrough came in 1923, with a commission to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the union of the two cities of Buda and Pest. The result was the Psalmus Hungaricus, a powerful setting of a sixteenth-century Hungarian version of Psalm LV which established Kodály as both a national cultural leader and a figure of international standing. The first of the two operas which followed, Háry Janos (1926) and The Spinning Room (1932), yielded a suite that soon became internationally popular, as did the orchestral Dances from Marossek (1930) and Dances from Galánta (1933), all presenting an authentic Hungarian national idiom in a manner that allowed it international prominence. His other orchestral works include a Concerto for Orchestra (1939–40) a Symphony (1957–61) and, one of his best-known scores, the Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (1938–39), often referred to as the ‘Peacock Variations’. Among his choral-orchestral output the Missa Brevis (1942–44) enjoys considerable esteem, as does the Budavár Te Deum (1936).
Kodály’s authority as a musical pedagogue is almost as high as his reputation as a composer. The ‘Kodály method’ he developed exploits the natural musicality of children to open the pleasures of performance to them, and has become a commonplace of music teaching all around the world. He composed an enormous quantity of choral exercises explicitly intended to encourage amateur singers to extend their techniques, so that his music is likely to remain an active part of the world’s musical life as long as people still want to sing.