The symphony that began on a tram

It is fifty years since the death of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály.

The Háry János Suite – which begins with an orchestral sneeze – the Concerto for Orchestra, and Dances of Galánta are regularly programmed. But one work languishes in relative obscurity.

kodaly-stampZoltán Kodály (1882-1967) is remembered today as much for his contributions to the field of singing and music education as for his compositions. Born in Kecskemét, Hungary, on 16 December 1882, Kodály’s father was a railway official. From 1884 until 1891 they lived in Galánta (later to be immortalised in orchestral dances based on folk music), then moved to Nagyszombat (now Trnava, Slovakia), where Kodály learned violin and piano. He also sang in the cathedral choir.

Having studied modern languages at the University of Sciences in Budapest, the lure of music proved too strong. Kodály enrolled at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in 1906 and with his close friend, the composer Béla Bartók, went on field trips to the Hungarian countryside. In Kodály’s words:

“Around 1900 it was necessary for the Hungarian composer first to collect folksongs… To begin with we looked only for the lost ancient melodies. But seeing the village people and the great talent and fresh life being left to perish there, we gained a new idea of a cultured Hungary born of the people. We devoted our lives to bringing this about.”

In England in the same period, Ralph Vaughan Williams was also making forays into rural areas to find good tunes, preserving many that might otherwise have vanished. Both Kodály and Vaughan Williams used the material in their compositions.

Unlike Vaughan Williams, Kodály had always resisted writing a symphony, but in the late 1930s he had a flash of inspiration:

“At the time I was teaching at the Academy of Music from three till seven. You may well imagine how four hours of teaching can be exhausting. Yet once it happened that I left the Academy at seven – I had to take public transport on my way home – I had an idea while still on the way, and indeed it came to me so suddenly and stormily that, in my anxiety lest I forget it, I wrote down the first notes on the tram ticket. At the corner I had to get off – I usually walked the rest of the way – and as soon as I got home I sat down and wrote the whole exposition of the first movement of my symphony. I had to change nothing in it later.”

Kodály ended up writing a three-movement symphony, whose idiom is tonal and which contains elements of Baroque music. Until fairly recently, it was unjustly neglected. At the start of the work, cellos and basses state a dignified theme, which contrasts with a folk-song second subject. At the symphony’s heart lies the middle movement, beginning “Andante moderato” with a striking melody on violas that is basis of a set of variations. The finale is a whirling dance-like movement marked “Vivo”.

The symphony was commissioned by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and first performed in August 1961 under the baton of Kodály’s former pupil Ferenc Fricsay. George Szell, famed conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, heard it and immediately secured the rights for a US premiere.

Zoltán Kodály died on 6 March 1967.



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