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8.553160 - KODALY: Three Chorale Preludes / Cello Sonatas Opp. 8 and 4
Zoltán Kodály (1882 - 1967)
Three Chorale Preludes
Kodály's unhappy lot in life and history was to play second fiddle to Béla Bartók. For years he was accused of plagiarism, he was critically hounded ("organised persecution", Bartók called it), and his inherent gentleness and selfless personal demeanour (remembered so well by the present author) was mistaken for weakness or lack of fibre. Given his lyric temperament, his nationalism, the premium he placed on expressive nuance and harmony, his misfortune perhaps (like the nordic Vaughan Williams/Sibelius/Roy Harris generation) was to have been born into an age progressively more interested in cancelling than renewing old values. He may have spanned the generations from old Liszt to young Ligeti, he may have lived through two world wars, Hitler, the Soviets and 1956, but comparatively little of such transition or trauma found reflection in his work. "For some time past," Bartók felt impelled to write in February 1921, "certain musical circles have made it their special concern to play me off against Zoltán Kodály. They would like to make it appear that the friendship between us is being used by Kodály for his own profit. This is a most stupid lie. Kodály is one of the most outstanding composers of our day. His art, like mine, has twin roots: it has sprung from Hungarian peasant soil and modern French music [Debussy]. But though our art has grown from this common soil, our works from the very beginning have been completely different ...It is possible that Kodály's music is not so 'aggressive' [as mine]; it is possible that in form it is closer to certain traditions; it is also possible that it expresses calm meditation rather than 'unbridled orgies'. But it is precisely this essential difference, reaching expression in his music as a completely new and original way of thinking, that makes his musical message so valuable ...This man, to whom Hungarian culture owes so much, is attacked at every turn, sometimes by official circles, sometimes by 'critics'. They are determined to prevent him from being able to work in peace for the good of our culture, and they do so while they, the incompetent, the idle and the nobodies, are proclaiming at the top of their voices the importance of maintaining the superiority of Hungarian culture". Eventually Kodály was to be feted and honoured by the world - but it needed Bartók's defence, a contract from Universal in Vienna (the publishers of Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg), the international success of Psalmus Hungaricus (1926 Zurich ISCM Festival) and Háry János, and the weighty independent support of men like Toscanini, Furtwängler and Ansermet to stem the once oceanic flood of ill feeling against him.
Kodály shared Beethoven's birthday - 16th December. As an old man (in 1966) he remembered himself as a village lowlander: "the Galánta district, where I began to find myself, is just as open as the Great Plain itself... [But] there was always a longing for mountains in me. From Galánta I cou1d see the Carpathians looming blue in the distance, from Nagyszombat they were a little nearer, but it was years later before I could actually set foot on them". "The shaping of my life," he wrote in 1950, "was as natural as breathing itself. I sang before I could speak, and I sang more than I spoke... I made my first instrument myself. I was hardly four years old when I took mother's draining-ladle, threaded strings into its holes and fastened them to the end of the ladle. On these strings I played the guitar and sang improvised songs to this accompaniment". In 1900 he went to Budapest, to read German and Hungarian at the University and to study at the Academy of Music with Reger's cousin, Hans Koessler, the teacher of Bartók and Dohnányi. His passions, composition apart, were collecting folk music (from 1905) and teaching (from 1907). With Bartók he was one of the great early ethnomusicologists of the century, notating, recording, documenting and publishing the living folk literature of his people fresh from the field. "Like their language, the music of the Hungarians is ... terse and lapidary, forming ...masterpieces that are small but weighty. Some tunes of a few notes have withstood the tempests of centuries", "there is no fertile soil without traditions [but] traditions in themselves do not create higher forms of art" (1939), were two among his many aphoristic perceptions. He was elected president of the International Folk Music Council in 1961.
Originally in three movements, the Op. 4 Sonata (December 1909 - February 1910) was premièred by Jenö Kerpely and Bartók in Budapest, 17th March 1910. Growing out of the same elemental "old Hungarian" intervals that a few years later were to lend wing to Sibelius's Fifth symphony, the opening F sharp minor Fantasia - an artful blend of rubato recitative, folk innuendo (the piano references, alla Liszt, to undamped cimbalon sound) and Debussyian harmonies - epitomises Bartók's view of Kodály as a composer of "rich melodic invention, [and] a perfect sense of form, [with] a certain predilection for melancholy and uncertainty ... [striving] for inner contemplation" July 1921). Kodály claimed Beethoven to have inspired the stamping main theme of the second movement, but in its short-winded modal phrases, drone inflections and Háry János - like allusions it's nearer perhaps to peasant dance. The return of the Fantasia at the end (the final cello F sharp cutting through the piano's distinctive G major triadic spacing) establishes a neat cyclic unity.
Dedicated to Kerpely and first played by him in Budapest on 7th May 1918, the Op. 8 Sonata (1915), admired by Bartók for its "unusual and original style ...[and] suprising vocal effects", is an extraordinary tour de force, not so much a reply to unaccompanied Bach as a visionary credo in pursuit of the ultimate, regardless of medium or technical limitation. In seeking his (B minor/major) goal, Kodály even has the lower two strings tuned down a semitone from normal (giving the configuration B-F sharp-D-A), notating them further as a transposing part. Inwardly, the three movements are tightly linked by recurring motifs and intervals. Outwardly, however, the impression is more random, a pageant of rhapsody and change, of sudden contrasts and pensive reflections, all exquisitely detailed in rhythm, phrasing, inflection and dynamics. Epic counterpoint and arresting gesture, recitatives, songs and dances, drones, shepherd pipes, zithers and cimbalons, veritably a whole gypsy orchestra, make up Kodály's vibrant dreamland. As monumental for cellists as the Liszt Sonata is for pianists, no more challenging a work exists. Kodály was never again to tackle the form.
The Three Chorale Preludes (1924) are arrangements of organ settings formerly attributed to Bach (BWV 743,762,747) but in fact spurious.
© 1996 Ateş Orga
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