The Music Educator of a Nation
Andrássy út, the only straight avenue in Pest, is divided into three major sections by two circuses, Oktogon and Kodály körönd . The Körönd, as it was named originally when the four residential blocs surrounding the square were built in the 1890s, fell victim to the re-naming frenzy of the Horthy regime and between 1938 and 1945 was called Adolf Hitler Square. Until 1970 it was called just the Körönd (the circus) again and then named after Zoltán Kodály whose 4-room groundfloor flat was there at Andrássy út 89. This turned out to be a good choice since it survived the latest naming/re-naming hysteria of 1990 when more than a 400 street names were changed as a move to erase the Communist past.
Like many great Hungarian artists and historical figures, Kodály devoted his whole life to a single cause: to save the ancient musical heritage of the Magyars and incorporate it into the European style of music. He and his life-long friend Béla Bartók arrived almost at the last moment. Not only did they collect folk songs all over Hungary, they also created a methodology to organize their collection. Their guiding principle during their collecting trips to faraway villages in the first decade of the 20th century was ”only from a pure source.” They claimed that it’s only the folk songs of the peasants that hold real value and pointed to the fact that the oral heritage was kept almost intact for more than two thousand years. Comparative research convinced them of the Asian roots of Hungarian pentatonic music. Their findings were published in the 1930s and comparative ethnomusicology became an accepted discipline.
Kodály was born in Kecskemét in 1882 but due to his father’s appointments to various Railway posts he grew up in Galanta (now in Slovakia). His first encounter with music was through his parents and -as he claimed in a speech given to the people of Galanta at a celebration – his nanny and maids from nearby villages who sang him folk songs. He enrolled at the Budapest Pázmány University and the Music Academy in Budapest in 1900. He matured as a composer in the following 20 years but did not acquire fame before 1923 when his major choral work Psalmus Hungaricus was premiered and became an instant success.
He divided his creative energies between composing, teaching and organizing a network to make music available to all, as he said ”music is for everyone”. His grand plan to make Hungary a nation of music lovers and experts materialized via his idea of introducing music education in all schools at a very early age. Once he summed up his philosophy to his students in his wry manner as follows: this institute (the Music Academy) will remain a college of the deaf and dumb ”because anyone who can’t write down what he hears is deaf and anyone who can’t sing what he sees is dumb.”
He subordinated everything to achieve his goal so much so that he accepted several high positions after 1945, including the presidency of the Academy of Sciences. The emerging communist regime flattered him and seemingly intended to use him as an iconic figure to represent the regime. However, Kodály, with his integrity and moral superiority collaborated with the regime only to a degree that served the interests of implementing his desired objective: maintaining Hungarian identity through polishing the Hungarian musical heritage. Due to his international fame and undisputable professionalism he was untouchable so much so that Rákosi’s associate Révay, the cultural dictator, had to abandon his idea of having the Hungarian anthem starting with the word ’God’ rewritten. Kodály’s terse answer to the request was ” Why do we need a new anthem? The old one will do.”
By the 1960s his great plan was materialized. Generations of Hungarians received quality music education, a choral movement flourished and the Kodály method, based on solfége and group singing, became known and popular in many countries, especially Japan, the US and England, although his bon mot concerning the Kodály method was that ’my only method is that I have no method’.
When he died in 1967 at the age of 85 he was still active and adored by his students and ordinary people alike. He had fulfilled his ambition he set before himself as a young man: to make the world better through music.
His legacy lives on in the concert halls and in the memory of many as affirmed by the fresh flowers and wreaths adorning the plaque on the wall of his Körönd apartment.