Kodály’s unhappy lot in life and history was to play second fiddle to Béla Bartók. For years he was accused of plagiarism, he was critically hounded (‘organised persecution’, Bartók called it), and his inherent gentleness and selfless personal demeanour was mistaken for weakness or lack of fibre. Given his lyric temperament, his nationalism, the premium he placed on expressive nuance and harmony, his misfortune perhaps was to have been born into an age progressively more interested in cancelling than renewing old values. He may have spanned the generations from old Liszt to young Ligeti, he may have lived through two world wars, Hitler, the Soviets and 1956, but comparatively little of such transition or trauma found reflection in his work. ‘For some time past,’ Bartók felt impelled to write in February 1921, ‘certain musical circles have made it their special concern to play me off against Zoltán Kodály. They would like to make it appear that the friendship between us is being used by Kodály for his own profit. This is a most stupid lie. Kodály is one of the most outstanding composers of our day. His art, like mine, has twin roots: it has sprung from Hungarian peasant soil and modern French music [Debussy].
Kodály shared Beethoven’s birthday—16th December. As an old man (in 1966) he remembered himself as a village lowlander: ‘the Galanta district, where I began to find myself, is just as open as the Great Plain itself. But there was always a longing for mountains in me. From Galanta I could see the Carpathians looming blue in the distance, from Nagyszombat they were a little nearer, but it was years later before I could actually set foot on them’. ‘The shaping of my life,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘was as natural as breathing itself. I sang before I could speak, and I sang more than I spoke. I made my first instrument myself. I was hardly four years old when I took mother’s draining-ladle, threaded strings into its holes and fastened them to the end of the ladle. On these strings I played the guitar and sang improvised songs to this accompaniment’. In 1900 he went to Budapest, to read German and Hungarian at the University and to study at the Academy of Music with Reger’s cousin, Hans Koessler, the teacher of Bartók and Dohnanyi. His passions, composition apart, were collecting folk music (from 1905) and teaching (from 1907). With Bartók he was one of the great early ethnomusicologists of the century, notating, recording, documenting and publishing the living folk literature of his people fresh from the field. ‘Like their language, the music of the Hungarians is terse and lapidary, forming masterpieces that are small but weighty. Some tunes of a few notes have withstood the tempests of centuries’, ‘there is no fertile soil without traditions but traditions in themselves do not create higher forms of art’ (1939), were two among his many aphoristic perceptions. He was elected president of the International Folk Music Council in 1961.
Dedicated to Kerpely and first played by him in Budapest on 7th May 1918, the Op. 8 Sonata, admired by Bartók for its ‘unusual and original style and surprising vocal effects’, is an extraordinary tour de force, not so much a reply to unaccompanied Bach as a visionary credo in pursuit of the ultimate, regardless of medium or technical limitation. In seeking his (B minor/major) goal, Kodály even has the lower two strings tuned down a semitone from normal (giving the configuration B-F sharp-D-A), notating them further as a transposing part. Inwardly, the three movements are tightly linked by recurring motifs and intervals. Outwardly, however, the impression is more random, a pageant of rhapsody and change, of sudden contrasts and pensive reflections, all exquisitely detailed in rhythm, phrasing, inflection and dynamics. Epic counterpoint and arresting gesture, recitatives, songs and dances, drones, shepherd pipes, zithers and cimbaloms, veritably a whole gypsy orchestra, make up Kodály’s vibrant dreamland. As monumental for cellists as the Liszt Sonata is for pianists, no more challenging a work exists. Kodály was never again to tackle the form.
The Three Chorale Preludes are arrangements of organ settings formerly attributed to Bach (BWV 743, 762, 747) but in fact spurious.
After a brief period of study in Berlin, Kodály returned to Hungary to join the staff of the Academy where, in 1908, he took over the first-year composition class. In the following years he continued his activities as a composer and as a collector of folk-song, finding in the second activity a necessary foundation for art music that was genuinely Hungarian rather than in the conventional German mould. He became deputy director of the Academy, which was granted the status of a university in the short-lived Hungarian Republic established in 1919, but he was barred for a time from teaching after the fall of the Republic four months later and the accession to power of Admiral Horthy.
Kodály’s transcription for cello and piano of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was made in 1951 and dedicated to Pablo Casals, who had emerged from self-imposed silence in 1950 for the Bach bicentenary. Kodály offers the transcription to Casals ‘in grateful memory of his wonderful renderings.’ Transposed to the more convenient and, for the cello, more resonant key of D minor, the Prelude allows melodic interest to the cello, which, in the Fugue provides the third and fourth entries of the fugal subject.
Kodály’s moving Adagio for cello and piano, which also exists in versions for violin or viola, was written in 1905 and dedicated, on its subsequent publication, to the violinist Imre Waldbauer of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet, an ensemble then of great importance in the encouragement and performance of contemporary Hungarian chamber music. It was to this quartet that Kodály dedicated his own second work in that form, while providing the cellist, Jeno Kerpely, with a cello sonata. Tripartite in structure, the first section, which frames a more overtly Hungarian central section, returns in a modified form, slowly and gently unwinding to provide a conclusion.
Two years later Kodály wrote his Hungarian Rondo, the title of the version for cello and piano of the work for chamber orchestra first performed in Vienna in 1918, under the title Old Hungarian Soldiers’ Songs. This is an apt enough description of the thematic basis of the work, with its first characteristic melody used to frame a series of episodes based on other traditional Hungarian material.
‘If I were asked,’ Béla Bartók wrote, ‘in whose music the spirit of Hungary is most perfectly embodied, I would reply, in Kodály’s. His music is indeed a profession of faith in the spirit of Hungary. Objectively this may be explained by the fact that his work as a composer is entirely rooted in the soil of Hungarian folk music. Subjectively it is due to Kodály’s unwavering faith in the creative strength of his people and his confidence in their future.’
History separated the two comrades-in-arms. As the regime of Admiral Horthy moved closer to Hitler, Bartók left for the United States. Kodály remained behind, his more adaptable nature choosing ‘internal emigration’—that is, an increasing aloofness from the Nazi tide and the expression of his antifascist sentiments in subtle ways: for example, his Variations for Orchestra on the patriotic song The Peacock, his choral setting of which the authorities had already banned. When Hitler’s troops occupied Hungary in 1944, Kodály’ s situation became precarious, for his wife was Jewish. They found refuge in the air-raid shelter of a convent, where Kodály completed a chorus for women’s voices, For St. Agnes’s Day, dedicated to the Mother Superior who had been instrumental in saving their lives.
Colorful orchestration and infectious rhythms have established Kodály’s chief orchestral works in the international repertory. Chief among these are the Dances from Galanta (1933), Variations on ‘The Peacock’ (1939), and Concerto for Orchestra (1939). Among the important vocal works are the Psalmus hungaricus (1923) and Missa brevis (Short Mass, 1952). The most important of his works for the stage is Háry János, whose hero was well described by the composer: ‘Háry is a peasant, a veteran soldier, who day after day sits in the tavern, spinning yarns about his heroic exploits. Since he is a real peasant, the stories produced by his fantastic imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naiveté, of comic humor and pathos. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create for himself and for others a beautiful dreamworld.’ The work is best known through an orchestral suite that scored an international success.
Slow 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…