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Essential Kodály

By Gary Barton

In a climactic scene from Steven Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, engineers atop a plateau play a five-note sequence on a powerful keyboard synthesizer, duplicating sounds they have heard in mysterious transmissions from space. Musically, this translates to re - mi - do - do (an octave lower) - sol or, in the key of C major, D - E - C - C - G. Small aircraft appear followed by a huge mother ship that repeats these five tones. It eventually lands and discharges several earthlings plus a frail, alien humanoid. This being establishes eye contact with a French scientist and makes a series of mysterious gestures with his hand. The two acknowledge mutual understanding and express delight.

The signs that the humanoid uses are those that were developed first by John Curwen and are now associated with Zoltán Kodály. They are designed to indicate various musical pitches. The following chart illustrates their exact formation.

Curwen Hand Signs

Zoltán Kodály was born in the county of Kecskemet, Hungary on December 16, 1882. He started improvising melodies at the age of four and continued to be musically active until his death in Budapest in 1967.

Kodály is recognized for his work in developing a musical system (the Kodály Method) through which young people learn about music. This system, in which singing is the primary instrument, utilizes the musical language of hand signals to conduct individuals or choirs in music that is unfamiliar to them and perhaps even being improvised by the conductor as it develops.

He is also noted for his research into the folk music of his native land. Realizing that simply notating songs on staff paper was inadequate and didn't capture the subtleties of the music as sung, Kodály took a primitive, wind-up, cylinder recording machine out into the countryside and asked the elderly natives to sing the songs they remembered from their youth. Both Liszt and Brahms had written "Hungarian" rhapsodies and other works based on supposedly authentic melodies and stanzaic structures indigenous to Hungary. What both Kodály and his fellow folk music collector, Béla Bartók, discovered was that Brahms and Liszt had mistaken the music of itinerant gypsies for true Hungarian folk music. They wasted no time in collecting as many musical memories as possible before the people who remembered the old music passed away or their music was diluted or mixed with that of other cultures.

The Essential Kodály

To get an idea of what Bartok and Kodály were doing with their "diamonds in the rough," try Hungaroton 18252 Tiszta forrás (Pure Springs). This CD contains recordings of folk songs juxtaposed with a piece in which that tune has been used in a completely different setting. 27 pairs are presented. One jumped out when I first read the track disposition and listened to the music. On track 53, an old man sings a song that is called in English "Fly Peacock, Fly!" Kodály was inspired by this tune to write a work for male chorus that is called The Peacock. He went on to compose a purely orchestral work, Variations on a Hungarian Folksong "The Peacock," that is also based on this melody. The very best, most insightful, translucent and profoundly moving reading of this work is on a 1997 recording, Arts Music 47379, with Arpád Joó conducting the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. Also on the CD are very fine performances of two collections, Dances of Galánta (using gypsy materials) and Dances of Marosszék. Completing the disc is Summer Evening, written in 1906 as a farewell to the music school where the composer had studied. If you only intend to gain a passing knowledge of Kodály's art, these two recordings make a good starting-off point. As an experiment in how Kodály's mind worked, play tracks 53 and 54 of the Pure Springs CD and then go directly to track 1 on the Arts Music disc. It will make you smile to hear evolution in action.

A second recommended recording of Peacock Variations is Sir Georg Solti's performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (London/Decca 452853), an interesting disc containing as well Boris Blacher's Variations on a Theme of Niccolo Paganini and Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. A third version is presented by the Philharmonia Hungarica with Antal Dorati conducting on a two-CD set (London/Decca 443006) that is devoted exclusively to Kodály's major orchestral works. The performances of Peacock Variations on these last two discs run a full two minutes less than the Arpád Joó recording. This "rushing" is apparent after listening to all three renditions.

In all likelihood, the first music by Kodály you heard was the Háry János Suite, which is taken from the singspiel opera of the same name. Háry is a marvelous character whose exploits are akin to those described in The Wonderful Travels and Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen. He is a braggart with an extremely colorful and clever repertoire of stories and he regales any gathering of friends or strangers in his favorite tavern with tales of his exploits. The Háry János Suite is on the aforementioned Decca "twofer" set (Decca 443006). It begins with an "orchestral sneeze" (Hungarian folklore has it that a story told after a sneeze is true). Perhaps the most familiar section is the Viennese Musical Clock. Also on this CD are Dances of Galánta, Dances of Marosszęk, Theatre Overture (although originally planned as a prelude to Háry János, Kodály decided later that this music could stand on its own), the rarely heard Concerto for Orchestra (written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940), Summer Evening and the three-movement Symphony in C Major.

Zoltán Kodály probably leads the list of 20th century orchestral composers who wrote for the human voice, particularly for chorus. A real stress buster is Hungaroton 31524 entitled Zoltán Kodály: An Ode for Music with Aurél Tillai conducting the Pecs Chamber Chorus. Also valuable, and at times surprising, is Hungaroton 31697. The disc contains the same choral arrangement and performers of The Peacock as the Pure Springs disc, a startling version in Hungarian of La Marseillaise and a thoughtful setting of John Masefield's poem I will go look for Death. Performers vary from track to track.

Kodály wrote some wonderful liturgical music. His Missa Brevis, dating from 1944, Laudes Organi (1966), Panga Lingua (1929), Evening Song (1938) and Evening (1904) are performed quite admirably by the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse with Jeremy Filsell at the organ on Guild 7161.

A major work, which in many ways launched Kodály's career, is Psalmus Hungaricus, a setting of Psalm 55 as freely translated by the sixteenth-century preacher-poet, Mihaly Kecskemeti Veg. It is a large-scale oratorio for tenor, chorus and orchestra. The premiere in November of 1923 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the union of Pest, Buda and Obuda that formed Budapest. Two recordings are recommended. The first, Chandos 9310, is a 1994 release featuring Sir Charles Mackerras, the Danish National Radio Symphony, Danish National Radio Choir, and Copenhagen Boy's Choir. The tenor soloist is Peter Svensson. Also on this disc is Leos Janácek's Glagolitic Mass in a performance based on the composer's autograph manuscript, a marvelous work and fitting companion to the Kodály piece. Noteworthy as well is Arpád Joó's interpretation on Arts Music 47378 with the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Chorus, Hungarian Radio/TV Children's Chorus and János B. Nagy, tenor. The companion piece on this CD is the Missa Brevis.

Ever since hearing Canadian cellist Giesala Depkat play it, I have a special place in my heart for Kodály's Sonata for Cello Solo. Recommended is Yo Yo Ma's interpretation on Sony 64114. Be careful in ordering this, as it is available as an SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) as well as a standard CD. The serial numbers for both are the same but beware, because Sony's SACD version will only play on a special SACD player. It will not play on a standard CD player at all. Only "Hybrid SACD's" work in both types of players.

Finally, add some of Kodály's chamber music for stringed instruments (he could play violin, viola and cello, skills he taught himself early on in his academic career) to your collection. String Quartet No. 1 is dedicated to his wife, Emma and premiered on her birthday, March 17, 1910. The fourth variation in the last movement is Emma's own work. A year and a half later, Kodály completed String Quartet No. 2. I recommended the performances by the Kodály Quartet on Hungaroton 12362.

Kodály declared in one of his last writings, according to Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "Our age of mechanization leads along a road ending with man himself as a machine; only the spirit of singing can save us from this fate." Fortunately, since his death the values for which he strove have prospered all over the world. Kodály institutes have been established in Tokyo, Boston, Ottawa, Sydney, Kecskemet and Halifax and an International Kodály Society, based in Budapest, was founded in 1975. Two years later, the technique of music signing was demonstrated to the world in Speilberg's film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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