I had a little dose of insomnia a few years ago and found that a tune I'd heard one day just wouldn't stop going round my head, again and again and again...and again. Thankfully, it was a very beautiful tune. It was the melody of Zoltán Kodály's little folksong-based choral piece Esti dal ('Evening Song'). I think you too might easily fall under its spell, especially given the way the composer initially sets it to a delightful hummed accompaniment.
Kodály's output of short choral pieces contain many other such gems. There's his spirited Táncnóta ('Dancing Song'), the recorder-accompaniment Karácsonyi pásztortánc ('Christmas Shepherds' Dance'), Szép könyörgés ('Beseeching'), Adventi dal ('Advent Song', with a tune you might well recognise) and, to return us to the mood in which we began, Hegyi Ejszakak ('Mountain Nights') and Este ('Summer'). As you can hear from just these pieces, melody - song-like melody - was at the heart of music for this composer.
Just as much as his great friend Béla Bartók, Kodály was soaked in the spirit of folk music. Bartók, of course, looked across much of Eastern Europe and even beyond for inspiration while Kodály stuck closer to home, Hungary. In many ways, Kodály is Hungary's answer to my country's Vaughan Williams - a figure dear to many of his countrymen's hearts, though some criticise him as being (consequently) a bit too parochial. Well, any Hungarians who still worry about Kodály being considered too parochial (or are those days now gone?) need not do so. His music travels abroad beautifully and speaks to anyone prepared to listen to it.
What Bartók and Kodály sought to do was to get to the authentic folk music of the Hungarian countryside and its deep, old melodies rather than (as Brahms and Liszt had done) draw on the pretend-folk music of the urban gypsy entertainers. That is not to say that they were anti-gypsy as, perhaps ironically, those very urban gypsy entertainers were the inspiration behind one of the orchestral pieces for which Kodály is best known - his affection portrayal of a famous gypsy orchestra from his childhood, the Galántai táncok ('Dances of Galanta'). The piece blends the form of a rondo ('a gypsy rondo'!) with that of the old slow-fast verbunkos familiar from Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. The recurring theme is first heard played by a solo clarinet after a short cadenza-like passage - a melody of great beauty, which the strings then take up passionately as the piece expands into an andante maestoso. The fast section contains a series of contrasted dances, gaining in excitement and brilliance as they proceed - with, of course, reminders of the recurring theme in between. It's hard not to get swept up in a piece of such melodic strength and orchestral colour.
You may know that piece already. I very much doubt you'll know Kállai kettős ('Double Dance from Kálló'), a work from chorus and orchestra. This is a later work (from 1950) where Kodály again draws on gypsy music. The 'Double Dance' is one of those where you sing and dance at the same time and is named after a small town in north-east Hungary called Nagykálló. The piece has proved a delightful discovery for me. It's got colour, catchy tunes in various moods and infectious rhythms.
Still, it is the influence of those old Hungarian peasant songs and dances that is the heart of Kodály's music - the side represented by the Marosszéki táncok ('Dances of Marosszék), a medley of tunes from eastern Hungary found (by the composer) to have ancient roots in Transylvania. The original version was for piano and makes the piece's cyclic form - not far removed from that of the Dances of Galanta - even clearer than in the orchestral version, though both move towards a festive ending and the earthy orchestral colours give the Marosszék pieces a tang distinct from those of Galanta. The recurring melody is a particularly seductive one.If you liked the Dances of Marosszék you will surely also like Mátrai Képek ('Mátra Pictures'), a choral piece that lovers of the folksong-arranging side of Bartók are also likely to relish. The tunes are fabulous and the way Kodály counterpoints them with other melodies is evidence of his consummate artistry - as is the remarkable contrapuntal writing contained in Jézus és a kufárok ('Jesus and the Traders'), where there are canons and fugal passages - suggesting that Kodály, like Bartók, was keeping in spirit with the contrapuntal bent of the age. This piece tells the gospel story of Jesus clearing the traders from the temple.
Kodály wrote three large-scale choral works, beginning with the noble and dramatic Psalmus Hungaricus, a 1923 work for solo tenor, chorus and orchestra setting a 16th Century Hungarian version of Psalm 55. This great piece, written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pesth, is another of those works shaped with a rondo-like structure and a recurring theme stamped with the character of Hungarian folksong. Psalmus Hungaricus is straightforwardly expressive, full of feeling and largely sticks to homophony. Reflecting his deepening interest in Renaissance polyphony, the second of these works, the Budavári Te Deum of 1936, contains plenty of polyphonic writing - though there's also Gregorian-style chant - including fugal passages. It is a splendid piece, full of fire and blistering trumpet fanfares. Finally came the not-so-brief Missa Brevis - a work when the folksong influence is felt less strongly and his interest in Palestrina-style polyphony even more strongly. If this feels like an usually dark work, well, it was written and later orchestrated during the years of the Second World War.
Kodály's biggest hit begins with a sneeze (achieved through a blend of string pizzicati, wind trills and an uprushing chromatic swirl) - yes, it's the Háry János suite, drawn from the 1926 singspiel (a spoken word drama with musical interludes) that went down such a storm with Hungarians. (The sneeze means the story must be true!) There are six delightful movements:
1. Prelude: The Fairy-Tale Begins - the sneeze, and the slow rise of a Hungarian melody.
2. Viennese Musical Clock - a delicious 'mechanical' number, complete with bells and percussion.
3. Song - a lyrical movement, with solos for viola and clarinet.
4. Battle and Defeat of Napoleon - a brilliantly-scored burlesque.
5. Intermezzo - a very catchy tune, listen out for the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer).
6. Entrance of the Emperor and His Court - full of pomp and circumstance.
Now, besides such crowd-pleasing music and so much other music for amateur choirs/school children to sing, the younger Kodály had a somewhat different side. Have you ever heard his Sonata for solo cello of 1915? This is a work whose mastery has placed it, in many cellists' eyes, as being the best work for solo cello since the six masterpieces of J.S. Bach. It is not an easy listen, having moments of some truculence, but its passion and intellectual power are compelling. It sounds so rich because, apparently, the two bottom strings of the instrument are lowered by a semitone giving rise to new opportunities for deep and resonant chords. Kodály draws on many of the key techniques open to cellists - glissandi, harmonics, sul ponticello - to add to that richness. The work's melodies, of course, draw on the shapes of Hungarian folkmusic and the last of the three movements sounds like a one-man folk orchestra in action! Yes, the younger Kodály was writing the sort of piece that we might more readily associate with Bartók in 1915, some 29 years before the latter's mighty and comparable Sonata for solo violin.
If that's whetted you appetite for the tougher early chamber music of our man, then please move straight on to the Duo for Violin and Cello, a rhapsodic work with a strong Hungarian folk flavour that is worthy of a place alongside Ravel's well-known duo sonata. At its heart is an intense Adagio. It is quite remarkable that only two instruments are playing, as Kodály has written for them in such a way that they sound (at times) more like a string orchestra. From there you might like to try some of the easier-on-the-ear chamber works that pre-date these classics - such as the rapturous Adagio for cello and piano, which features a lovely passage where the cellist floats like a swan over the piano's rippling accompaniment, or the pleasure-giving Sonata for Cello and Piano, another rhapsodic work with a strong air of improvisation and a sighing slow movement. (A later stab at another such sonata in the early 1920s gave rise to the agreeable Sonatina for Cello and Piano).
What of solo piano music? Well, Kodály later came to distrust the instrument as being one that excluded ordinary people from music-making but early on he was far from averse to using it - and writing excellent music for it. Listening to how the composer's language developed through the Nine Pieces for Piano, Op. 3 and the more innovative Seven Piano Pieces, Op.11 shows how the composer was striving to incorporate new strains into old Romantic forms. As with Bartók, Debussy's influence was growing at this time and can be felt alongside folksong. A direct homage to the Frenchman can be heard in the lovely Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy, whilst a glimpse of Kodály's earliest Romanticism can be heard in the tiny , charming Valsette.
All of which brings me back to Kodály's orchestral music and the composer's graduation piece, Nyári este ('Summer Evening'). The melodies are already modal, the arabesques of folk music are already present, the Hungarian character is growing, but also here in this lush piece of pastoral scene-painting can be heard the shades of Romanticism and French impressionism. I suspect you'll like this lyrical score.
Apparently as well-known to Hungarians as Green Sleeves is to us Brits, The Peacock ('Felszállott a pava') provided the starting point for one of his later orchestral pieces, the Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, The Peacock. It is a beautiful score that, despite using variation form, has something of a symphonic feel to it, especially given that it falls into three basic sections. The theme is presented in the slow introduction, then sixteen variations and a festive finale follow. There is certainly nothing dry about it. It sings from the heart - as so much of Kodály's works do. From the same year came the Concerto for Orchestra (predating Bartók's by five years), another highly entertaining work that doesn't get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It combines exuberance with tenderness, pointed rhythms with lyricism. This work seems to be about as close as Kodály ever got to Hindemith's take on Neo-Classicism.
And, finally, to return to where I began...with Kodály's choral miniatures..., please try his jubilant homage to the Hungarian nation A magyarokhoz, and the classic Túrót eszik a cigány ('See the Gypsies Munching Cheese'), and I think you'll agree with me that Zoltán Kodály is one of the most joy-provoking composers of the last century.