Kodaly the musicologist


This is the text of an address by Dr. Vikár given at the Twelfth International Kodály Symposium in Assisi, Italy in August, 1995. László Vikár, a distinguished ethnomusicologist himself, was a student of Kodály's in the 1950s and subsequently served for many years as Kodály's research assistant. He is the former head of the Folk Music Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Zoltán Kodály is known and appreciated worldwide as an outstanding representative of 20th-century Hungarian composition and music education. In his works he adhered extremely consciously to Hungarian folk music throughout his life and earned it world fame. By doing so, Hungary acquired a higher esteem in Europe than through any attempt to become similar to others.


It may sound strange but Kodály's way to young people often led through Hungarian villages. There a rich musical tradition survived up to the early 20th century which provided a sound basis to build on and which could be expected to bring about an unconditional revival of Hungarian music and music education.

The question arises how it could happen that Kodály's unparalleled, immense musicological work related to folk music has become the least known in the world when Hungarian folk music was so decisive in his life. The reason may be that this sphere of activity did not take place in and affect concert halls or the abundance of schools. Scholarly work is for the greater part not spectacular and fails to be in the limelight of publicity. Nevertheless, it was there in the background and supplied material, ever widening possibilities for tutors and compositions alike. For this reason I feel that it is imperative to talk more than before about his scholarship both to foreign and domestic professionals, including the vast number of people interested in Kodály and ethnomusicology.

The four branches of ethnomusicology, i.e. collection, notation, analysis-systematization, and edition of folk music become more and more separated these days. It is very much similar to work processes in other fields. The general practitioner of one hundred years ago has been replaced by a number of specialists who may have a more in-depth knowledge of a small area than their predecessors but are not able any more to survey comprehensive and decisive interrelationships. As far as ethnomusicologists are concerned, the scholars who gather, describe, study and even publish folksongs enjoy absolute advantage. They become more intimately involved with the material in this natural chain of activities and hand it down more authentically than those who perform only one work phase, and even that mostly impersonally. Kodály's lifework covered the entire process: a large single arch extends over his early collection of Mátyusföld in 1905 and the melodies of the laments volume of some 60 years later.

It is felt necessary to emphasize the unique feature of Zoltán Kodály's personality and activities that combined inseparably many advantageous characteristics of the artist and the scholar, the two meaning the same in his case. Both his compositions, stirring the souls, and his informative writings, chiseled to perfection, give evidence of how beauty and order were inseparable twin brothers in Kodály's life--whether listened to or studied--neither of them existing without the other. As he himself put it, "sciences and arts have common roots," both serve and show up man. The thousand-year-old European history of music can hardly find any other composers of Bartók's and Kodály's high standing who achieved such outstanding results in scholarly research as well. It is no use weighing whether they made a greater contribution to the art of 20th-century music or to musicology. They never separated particular components of their immense achievement. Anyway, how could the composer and the musicologist be separated in his work like the Peacock Variations or the Mátra Pictures and many others?

The fact cannot be neglected either that he did not take up an ancient discipline nor join the course of an activity looking back upon considerable experiences and carried on for a long time in Hungary or abroad. Though he had forerunners, he brought something new both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Together with Bartók he created an essentially new branch of musicology known by the term ethnomusicology. Nobody before them had ever worked on saving and reviving folksongs with so much musical and scholarly attainments.

Kodály started, simultaneously with Bartók, systematic work extending or\ver the entire territory of Hungary in 1906 already, and continued it uninterrupted--even during the First World War--for two decades. Zoborvidék, the area lying northeast of the town of Nyitra where Hungarian settlements from the early Middle Ages had survived and, in Eastern Transylvania, mainly the one-time County Csik populated exclusively by Hungarians proved by thousands of folksongs, one more beautiful than the other, that the musical tradition was still alive. Later on the Mátra region and the Country Somogy came into the focus of Kodály's attention. The last place where he collected folk music was Mohács in Southern Hungary in 1950. On the whole, Kodály collected and recorded nearly 5100 melodies and melody variants in 235 villages and, by doing so, he became one of the most successful Hungarian folksong collectors. We all learned from him that preparation was the most imperative prerequisite of a satisfactory collection work. Whenever we went to a region for the first time the choice of location was of decisive importance. Good results could only be hoped for in villages situated far from the railway line and the main routes of bus connections which could be reached by cart or on foot exclusively. From time to time villages were preferred where nobody had ever collected folksongs before. In other instances, an opposite approach was chosen: to return to places visited once and to find out who s\was still alive of the earlier singers an dhow much they remembered of the old stock and how many new items they learned in the meantime. Kodály made us realize that a melody with only a few or no variants whatsoever cannot be regarded as alive any more since it had frown fixed, unchanged. Frequent change is a sign of life in music as well. On our collecting trips we discovered also that the folk music researcher would get acquainted--whether he wanted it or not--not only with the melodies by the life and living conditions of the people populating the village as well. It forms part of the life of folk music when, why, and how the old people and the youth sing and make music, what their opinion of the various songs and each other's singing is. Kodály himself frequently asked the villagers about their living conditions.

Writing down the collected melodies is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of ethnomusicology. The recorded melodies are preserved in notation in the rarest places only. Notation, on the other hand, is essential for progress, for in-depth research. Tapes may be kept, moreover, put into chronological order but the melodies themselves they hold cannot be arranged in a systematical way. Many are inclined to assume--for reasons of comfort evidently--that at the given moment it is enough to collect melodies until they are available and the work of notation can follow when there is no more living tradition. This approach is not completely acceptable, even though there is a grain of truth in it. Our own experiences have shown that what is not done immediately, in its proper time, can be performed hardly or not at all later. For that matter, only the collector can notate the melodies properly.

The different approaches followed by Kodály and Bartók are extremely edifying in this case as well. Zoltán Kodály's personality, artistic, scholarly and educational objectives can be well traced in his notation of many thousand folksongs, too. Bartók, who strove for perfection and corrected himself time and time again, who intended in his notation to reflect the musical phenomena in the most precise manner possible, so a Bartók notation can be compared to a photo on which everything appears the way it was in reality; Kodály seems to be closer to a painter who focuses less on particular details than on the whole, and who intended to grasp the essence in the notations as well. Accordingly, Kodály never put an erroneous stanza into the main text; the error was always relegated to the notes. With him the main text was allowed to contain complete melodies only, even at the price of being eventually forced to compile it from several stanzas or to conclude it. Bartók can hardly have cared whether the melodies he put down could be sung or not, as he did not intend them for reproduction. Kodály, by contrast, did not notate a single folksong without considering that it would once be sung. This does not hold true for each item. Among Bartók's early collections there exist some quite simple notations whereas the melodies collected by Kodály in Transylvania are partly notated in great detail. We should be aware, however, that the notated or printed music will never be identical with the original song or music Paper is capable of reflecting reality only faintly, of reminding us of the genuine item. It is worth noting, however, that the transcription should reflect correct orthography and logical musical structure.

Thousands, moreover, then thousands of melodies can be used in a well-arranged form only. In order to do so we must get acquainted with the characteristic features of the melodies. The analysis reveals that each melody contains precisely identifiable parts on the one hand and peculiarities that can be understood in many different ways, on the other. For purposes of analysis and arrangement it is expedient to regard the latter as secondary features. The uniform final g established on the Finnish model of Ilmari Krohn and Armas Launis facilitates the work of arrangement and comparison to a great extent. It cannot be a matter of dispute which are the cadential notes and the range of a given melody and how many syllables the text has in a line. Bartók and Kodály indicated these data uniformly in the left- and right-hand upper corners of each page and the same is done these days, too. It can be observed, however, how cautious they were when it came to establishing the form or scale of the melodies because they were well aware of how subjective their assessment may be which is not really suitable for systematization (AAv or AB, Dorian or Aeolian). This is why the proofs frequently lack an indication of form or scale. In the melody collection that had grown to ten thousand items in the meantime, Kodály listed the songs of two bars the laments and the instrumental melodies separately because they required a completely different arrangements. It is how the most natural ordering of the folksongs based exclusively on musical characteristics emerged focusing on no more on external features but on the essence.

In the early 1950s Kodály grew increasingly dissatisfied with his own system that had stood the test for decades. He found it too rigid, even if this inflexibility was the token of easy handling. It was then that he charged his pupil Pál Járdányi with the task of establishing a new order that would bring the similarities of contents and the essentials more into relief. His deep analytical work of several years led to the conclusion that the similarities and differences between the melodies can best be demonstrated by the movements and relationships inherent in the melodies.


So it happened that a fourteen-syllable, four-bar giusto melody and a six-syllable, two-bar parlando example were placed side by side if their motions were identical, a fact that nobody would ever have thought of before.

There is no doubt that the carefully analyzed and ordered melodies can be used incomparably better than an unordered material. Orderliness in thoughts and deeds alike was one of Zoltán Kodály's most outstanding characteristics. His scholarly achievement was crowned undoubtedly by the series A Magyar Népzene Tára (Corpus Musicae Popularis Hungaricae) [the Complete Edition of Hungarian Folksongs] which attempted for the first time in the world and so far unprecedented to publish the entire music tradition of a people in musical order. So far ten massive volumes have been published. Each volume includes approximately one thousand folksongs with music notation and text, scholarly apparatus and, from the fifth volume onwards, with English translation as well.

In connection with Corpus Musicae two things must be emphasized. The first is that it strives for completeness. It is thus not a selection but the publication of all songs collected so far, including precious and less valuable items alike because only this allow one to give a comprehensive view of the real proportions: what has survived where, when and how, and keeps living on to these days. The other point to stress is that Corpus Musicae is a musical publication in the first place and though it gives detailed information on each folksong, it establishes the sequence of songs according to musical features, not to some other criteria. This may seem natural for an outsider. What on earth should the arrangement of melodies be based on if not on the melodies themselves or the rhythm? Nevertheless, an edition of this kind still passes for rarity since most collections publish the songs alongside extramusical criteria even these days such as, e.g., text, collector, time, etc. It can thus be claimed that Corpus Musicae is the unprecedented outcome of Kodály's thinking in terms of relevant matters and of his conscious work.

It shows an utmost reverence for and a genuine appreciation of the past that during his life Kodály turned time and again to our great personalities of the past, read, analyzed, and used their works. In 1952 he published, among other things, the critical edition of the collected songs by János Arany, the outstanding Hungarian poet of the 19th century at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and urges his colleagues to embark on similar tasks.

Indefatigable and consistent, severe order characterized Zoltán Kodály's scholarly attitude. He gave his pupils his utmost--a programme for a whole life in a minute--but demanded also much of them. He called their attention incessantly to newer and newer tasks to be carried out and whoever was ready to embark on one, met with his far-reaching support. He accepted only the best in everything and whenever we accomplished less, he immediately observed it. He took notice of the tiniest error but left proper achievement without comments. His silence in connection with a matter meant recognition.

Kodály the linguist must also be mentioned briefly. Hardly any people abroad and unfortunately fewer and fewer people in Hungary know how devotedly and consistently he fought for the purity of the Hungarian language all his life. Innumerable articles, papers and contributions prove how dear the issue of good Hungarian usage was to his heart and how he discouraged those who, by taking over foreign influences excessively, contributed to the deterioration of the language. What this meant, will only be understood by speakers of small languages. He fought a decade, for example, for the recognition of a vowel available in spoken everyday Hungarian but not existing as a letter (ë), for nice pronunciation and proper accentuation.

From the end of the second World War up to his death Zoltán Kodály's life was intimately connected with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. After 1946 he was president of the Academy for three years, then directed the Editorial Board of Corpus Musicae and the Folk Music Research Group whose staff quintupled within a few years. In the Research Group he held plenary meetings regularly where individuals gave accounts of their work related, for the most part, with publications or collections. He established a wide range of relationships within Hungary and internationally, watched over the adequate use of the budget given by the state, and urged incessantly the acquisition from abroad more and more up-to-date, quality recording devices. Few managers cared more for providing the intellectual and material background of an activity than Kodály the director did. It is the token of his heightened sense of responsibility that at the age of seventy he did not hesitate to accept the task of teaching the four of us of the Folk Music Department admitted to the recently established Department of Musicology at the Academy of Music for the subsequent five years. Moreover, he was director of my postgraduate study for a further three years.

Throughout his life Zoltán Kodály felt strongly attracted to literature No musician has ever had a better knowledge of the Hungarian literature of the past centuries and there has hardly ever been or is a musician who could word his thoughts in a more correct and more beautiful Hungarian language than he did Let us quote only a few examples: in 1909 he wrote an in-depth study about the folk customs of the people of Zoborvidék, preserving a very rich musical tradition. In a writing entitled Ötfokú hangsor a magyar népzenében [The pentatonic scale in Hungarian folk music] he pointed out in 1917 the decisive role of this scale in Hungarian folk music which had not been recognized earlier. In Népzene és zenetörténet [Folk music and the history of music] published in 1933 he laid down the basic requirement of the interdependence of Hungarian folk music and music historical research and emphasized the importance of exploring the relationships between the two. His study of about 70 pages on Hungarian folk music came out in 1937 and has remained, in its greater part, the best summary of this subject-matter and as such a manual for university students.

When talking of Zoltán Kodály's scholarly achievements we cannot leave without comment his exceptional proficiency in languages. He graduated from university as a teacher of Hungarian and German in the early days of the century but was fluent in French and later in English as well. We saw him write a letter in perfect Italian, read Homer in the original, deliver words of appreciation in Latin when the title honorary doctor was conferred on him in Oxford and speak Slovak to the elderly women of the Mátra region at the end of the fifties. He suggested to his last pupils that they learn at least one language of the neighbouring peoples because it may form part of the ethnomusicologist's work.

Zoltán Kodály, who was equally well versed in arts and sciences, left behind an unparalleled lifework which combines intellectual content and emotional constituents on a high level. Following Horace's advice he always refrained from extremes: Rectius vives nequ'altum semper urgendo neque dum procellas litus iniquum.

He was a soft-spoken man, concealing his emotions well in most cases, who always found the adequate word to express his well-ordered thoughts. His person radiated security and balance. One could turn to him for advice and help at any time and one was definitely given both. Was he more of a world-famous composer, or a musicologist or a music educator? For us, he was all three equally.

© 1995: Laszlo Vikar

Friss hírek

KÓTA díj

KÓTA díjat kapott Fehér Anikó karnagyi kategóriában 2019. február 20-án.

Read more ...

Kis Kidéből nékem el kell menni...

Megjelent Fehér Anikó új kötete:
"Kis Kidéből nékem el kell menni..." Járdányi Pál, a népzenekutató

Read more ...

Búcsúzunk Kallós Zoli Bácsitól