I once asked a friend
from Hungary what music from her homeland
she would recommend. She suggested Bela
Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra,
his Piano Concerto No. 3, and
his Violin Concerto No. 2. She
also suggested Kodály's Hary
Janos Suite, and his Dances of
Katalin has never steered
me wrong and I've read with pleasure
the Hungarian novels she's tossed in
my path. But -- are you listening, Katalin?
-- I wonder if the short list of essential
Hungarian music ought to be expanded
at least enough to include the Kodály
The problem is that
people like myself with no knowledge
of Hungarian music often enjoy Kodály
pieces like the Peacock Variations
but might have no idea that Kodály
also wrote a symphony. I first learned
of it in one of Rob Barnett’s reviews
of a Braga Santos symphony. When I took
two music guides off my shelf to look
at the Kodály sections, I discovered
what the problem was. One of the guides
made no mention of the Symphony at all.
The other one gave it a single paragraph.
Why should it be so
neglected, I wonder, when the work is
so rich in what we turn to, say, Bartók’s
Hungarian Sketches for? To my
mind all of Kodály’s music seems
to be about explaining what the Hungarians
are doing in the heart of Europe - a
horse people from the east driven like
a wedge in among all those alien Indo-Europeans.
It makes for good listening – and good
reading, incidentally. It’s sometimes
a theme in Hungarian writing.
"We live in the
middle of Europe like a foundling, like
an abandoned illegitimate child,"
the great Hungarian writer Zsigmond
Moricz has a character say in his novel,
Be Faithful unto Death (here
translated by Stephen Vizinczey). "Hungary
was always the last battleground. It
was the bastion where the Asiatic hordes
had to stop. Isn’t that amazing, that
the Hungarians should have come here
from the east to protect the west from
the easterners? We bled away at that,
fighting our eastern relatives to defend
the alien westerners who have remained
strangers through a thousand years …"
music lets western ears edge a bit closer
to that eastern strangeness in works
like the Kodály Symphony in
C major. It’s one of the pieces
on a generously plump Chandos recording
of mostly lesser-known Kodály
works by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the
First movement, Allegro.
John S. Weissman writes, in an essay
that is quoted in Percy Young’s book
about Kodaly, that in the symphony the
composer "conjures up visions of
distant landscapes and far-off days,
pondering on the memories of a world
that is gone for ever." Young adds,
"Nostalgia is a word that comes
from some pens."
That is especially
true in the second movement, but some
of it is already present here in the
first. Young finds the opening of the
Symphony evocative and mysterious because
it sets out in a low register, with
cellos and basses announcing the main
theme above a pedal note on the timpani.
(Surely he’s right about the aura of
mystery that can surround such an opening
… think of the low, brooding start of
Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter
or Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony.)
Just as in Kodály’s
Peacock Variations, there are
passages in the first movement that
make me think of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
No doubt Vaughan Williams, with Kodály’s
same allegiance to folksong, would have
appreciated this symphony if he’d lived
to hear it.
Already in the first
movement, but in the two other movements
as well, I find some bright writing
for woodwinds, especially the oboe and
What is deeply Magyar
about the Symphony comes through particularly
well in the second movement, marked
Andante moderato. There is a
wonderful theme with a suggestion of
the East in it about 2:30 or 3 minutes
into the movement.
Oddly enough, I also
think of two great American symphonies.
A glowering of strings at some points
(try 2:20 into II) makes me think, if
only momentarily, of the opening of
Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3.
And the overall folk-like quality of
the movement evokes some of the same
sort of feeling as the third movement
of Randall Thompson's wonderful Symphony
No. 3 – another work that suffers
from undeserved neglect.
There's no break between
the second and third movements of the
Kodály Symphony, but an
abrupt change in tempo tells you it
has arrived. The movement is labeled
Vivo - just right. It races in
Here is where I quibble
with those who say this symphony is
about nostalgia. That may be true until
this point, but the final movement steers
away from all that. It’s like the Hungarian
gentleman who finishes his sad tale
over a glass of wine and gallops off
into the midday sun. Musically, the
spirit of the third movement is rather
like the brisk parts of Prokofiev’s
Lt. Kije Suite, or like Kodály’s
own Hary Janos Suite.
It may be that the
nostalgia element of this Symphony is
stressed a little too much simply because
Kodály happened to be nearing
80 years old when the work was finally
completed. Yet as several critics note,
Kodály began it decades before
– and it seems to pick up exactly where
he left off with what the composer was
feeling then. It’s a young man’s symphony,
as that romp of a finale shows.
However, this entire
disc by the BBC Philharmonic thematically
might be a look backward, in some sense.
The Theatre Overture is adapted
from Kodály’s Hary Janos
opera, about the wonderful but fabricated
adventures of a veteran of another era.
The notes to this disc by Ian Stephens
explain that Kodály recast the
overture to Hary Janos in 1927
to make the Theatre Overture,
then revised it between 1929 and 1932.
Dances of Marosszek
– here the 1929 orchestral version
of an original piano work - grew from
one of Kodály's folksong-collecting
expeditions in Transylvania (Marosszek
is now in Romania). It’s Kodaly himself
who puts this work firmly in the past.
Laszlo Eosze’s book about Kodály
quotes the master saying Brahms’ Hungarian
Dances are typical of urban Hungary
in about 1860. "My Dances of
Marosszek have their roots in a
much more remote past, and represent
a fairyland that has disappeared",
The remaining piece
on this disc, Kodály’s Concerto
for Orchestra, is tethered to the
past, too. In addition to the usual
Kodályan influence of folksong,
Stephens’ notes point out stylistic
links with Baroque music.
All in all, this is
a fine disc for tapping several works
that might not get a mention in the
music guides. The cover art shows a
1914 painting called Peasant
by Zinaida Serebriakova.
For those who like
Hungarian music enough to give Hungarian
writing a try, I’d particularly recommend
Gyula Krudy’s novel Sunflower,
set in the marshy, birch-covered region
of northeast Hungary, and his novel
set in Budapest, The Crimson Coach.
Historian John Lukacs has compared Krudy’s
writing to the sound of a cello, and
it’s said to be nearly impossible to
translate because of its deeply Magyar
music. Krudy writes with a sort of contented
melancholy about dreamy landscapes and
decaying Hungarian gentry – sort of
a prose equivalent to the second movement
of the Kodaly Symphony.
Sandor Marai’s novel,
Embers, deserved the acclaim
it won when it finally appeared in English
translation a few years ago – sort of
like Faulkner, as written by Hemingway,
Zsigmond Moricz’s great
classic, Be Faithful Unto Death,
has been translated twice into English.
It’s well worth reading for its look
at Hungarian life through a boy’s eyes.
But for the music of
Hungary that won’t spill through your
hands in translation - Kodály
may be still your best buy.