Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, collector of folk songs, and music educator. He developed a technique for teaching young children to read music through folk material.
Zoltán Kodály was born in Kecskemét, where his father was a railroad stationmaster. When Kodály was 18, he enrolled at both the Budapest Conservatory and University. Béla Bartók was a classmate, and the two students became interested in Hungarian folk music. This interest was part of a larger movement in Hungary at the time, the desire to discover the country's true culture, which had been under German domination for over 100 years.
Kodály and Bartók knew that what was thought to be Hungarian folk music was actually gypsy music, a kind of commercial popular music played by gypsies in cafes and theaters. About 1905 they started to collect folk songs systematically by going to rural areas and recording the music on their crude phonograph. Their fieldtrips broadened to include other central European countries, and by 1913 they had collected over 3,000 folk songs. This collection, and their transcriptions and analyses, was important in establishing the techniques of ethnomusicology, which was to become an important 20th-century discipline.
Kodály's interest in folk songs continued throughout his life, but his main activity in the period between World War I and II was composing and serving as teacher at, and later director of, the Budapest Conservatory. His first composition to achieve world fame was Psalmus Hungaricus (1923), a large choral and instrumental work, commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the joining of Buda and Pest. It is based on Hungarian melodies, but the setting is completely of the 20th century. His music has certain resemblances to Bartók's, but it is never as violent in its use of dissonance.
Another important composition by Kodály is Hary Janos (1932), a folk-based opera. He also composed an orchestral suite based on this opera, other orchestral and chamber works, and large and small choral works.
Throughout his life Kodály was interested in bringing music to the people, and he was active in reforming the way in which music was taught in Hungarian schools. He introduced a method of teaching sightsinging to young children based on folk songs, using a combination of syllables (do re mi) with hand gestures. The approach was highly successful, and the "Kodály method" became known outside Hungary after World War II and was used in some schools in England and the United States, where Kodály "workshops" were established to instruct teachers.
Kodály's last years were a series of triumphs for the octogenarian. He was treated as a national hero in his own country, and he received the highest honors when he traveled abroad, not only for his compositions but for his philosophy that music should play an important role in every child's life.
Further Reading on Zoltán Kodály
Percy M. Young, Zoltán Kodály: A Hungarian Musician (1964), is a sympathetic study of the life and works of the composer by an English musician who introduced Kodály's teaching ideas into England. Lászlio Eösze, Zoltán Kodály: His Life and Work (1956; trans. 1962), stresses the ethnomusicological achievements as well as the compositions and has good illustrations.
Additional Biography Sources
Young, Percy M. (Percy Marshall), Zoltán Kodá ly: a Hungarian musician, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1964.