To teach a child an instrument without first giving him preparatory training and without developing singing, reading and dictating to the highest level along with the playing is to build upon sand.
Zoltán Kodály’s childhood was spent in small villages and towns – such as Kecskemét, Galanta and Pozsony – that dotted the Hungarian countryside in the late 1800's.
He and his siblings were immersed in the songs and dances of the ancient local cultures that had populated this region for over 1000 years.“The making of my destiny was as natural as breathing,” he said. “ I sang earlier than I talked, and I sang more than I talked.”
His parents, accomplished amateur musicians, provided Zoltán’s earliest musical training. Soon he mastered the piano, violin, viola and cello.
Kodály was a versatile honors student. By 1898, his senior year of high school his compositions were being performed by his high school orchestra.
Of his Overture in D, which required borrowing wind players from the Pozsony fire brigade, a local newspaper critic wrote, “...the ideas in it are linked in a logical sequence. The piece indicates a vigorous and dynamic talent.”Upon graduation, Kodály set out for Budapest to study composition and to seek broader intellectual horizons. He simultaneously attended the academy of music and the university.At the Budapest Opera House, Kodály experienced the full flowering of the high German culture that dominated cosmopolitan Budapest. He also noted the complete absence of the Hungarian folk cultures of his youth.
By 1905, after earning a composing degree and another as a teacher of Hungarian and German, Kodály was conducting classes at the Budapest Academy of Music, composing, and writing his doctoral thesis on the Hungarian folk song.
In August 1905, Kodály returned to Galanta and other rural villages of his childhood to collect and notate folk songs from peasant singers. Though highly trained in the idioms of classical music, Kodály was seeking to better understand and define the inherent value of his musical roots.
Some years later, he wrote: “What is universally human can be approached by all peoples only through their specific, national characteristics.”
Kodály’s belief that peasant folk music could provide a foundation for building a higher Hungarian art music was shared by another young composer, Béla Bartók. Together, they often roamed the countryside, systematically notating and recording the folk music of ancient Hungarian tribes. While pursuing distinctive composing careers, Kodály and Bartók both drew inspiration from folk culture. Through their joint publications and through individual artistic effort, they affirmed value in their Hungarian roots, laying the groundwork to challenge the German cultural standards that dominated early 20th Century Budapest.
“The vision of an educated Hungary, reborn from the people, rose before us.,” Kodály said. “We decided to devote our lives to its realization.”