Kodály’s Principles in the Perspective of the 21st Century

Based on Zoltán Kodály’s Writings and Speeches
by Lilla Gábor

Half a century has gone by since Zoltán Kodály passed away. Are his principles still valid? Are his original intentions always understood correctly? What are the crucial points of adaptation? Is there actually a gap between our rapidly changing lifestyles, the technology of the 21st century and our pursuit of high quality music education in our age?

The main purpose of this comprehensive overview is to lead us to a deeper understanding of Kodály’s fundamental views and principles in the perspective of the 21st century. It covers numerous important and inspiring aspects of music education, reaching back to the authentic sources: Kodály’s original writings and speeches. His spiritual legacy combined with his pedagogical guidance continue to be an essential, relevant source in a universal, cultural and human aspect.

Béla Bartók: ”Kodály is our greatest Hungarian composer-pedagogue” (Béla Bartók: Zoltán Kodály 1921 – ’Tempo’ magazine, No. 63, 1962-1963, Cambridge University Press) (Bartók Béla: Kodály Zoltán 1921 – first published in the literary journal ’Nyugat’ 1921 – Bartók Béla válogatott irásai, Művelt nép 1956)

Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) was a highly acclaimed, iconic cultural figure of his time, both in Hungary and around the world. In addition to being one of the most significant, renowned composers of the 20th century, he was a prominent linguist, a ground-breaking ethnomusicologist, a distinguished professor of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, and an extraordinary, innovative music pedagogue. This extensive, highly intellectual and artistic background provides credibility and foundation to his large-scale music educational concept, his invaluable arguments, viewpoints and guidelines.

Each one of Kodály’s writings and speeches has to be considered in its own historical context. In order to understand his statements and intentions, we must take into account, that in each case he responded to the current flaws, deficiencies and failures of the time, fighting for new solutions. We also need to keep in mind that his life reached over the most turbulent decades of the 20th century. Tasks in need of urgent solutions kept continuously changing, altering during the course of his lifetime. Even though the essence and the basic pillars of his concept were solid and consistent, he constantly placed emphasis on the next relevant tasks, complementing his earlier goals with new ideas. Kodály symbolically calls the long-term implementation of his principles the “hundred-year plan”.

Zoltán Kodály brought into existence a unique, universal music pedagogical concept. The methodology of putting it into sequential, daily practice was primarily accomplished by Jenő Ádám, following Kodály’s request. Ádám’s fundamental work, based on his broad musical and pedagogical experience, was pursued by several prominent music teachers, under Kodály’s stimulating personal guidance. Through a process of challenging, hard work combined with unconditional dedication, Márta Nemesszeghy founded the first music primary school in Kecskemét, and soon after, Irma Bors established the first one in Budapest. Kodály’s vision turned into reality: he gave rise to a new, thriving music educational system.

Hungarian musical tradition over the 20th century has reached some outstanding heights. Generations have been trained according to Kodály’s music educational principles, leading to an exceptionally high general level of musicianship. An exuberant musical life emerged from this revitalizing, dynamic background.

As far as the adaptation of Kodály’s music pedagogical concept is concerned, it is obviously not a question anymore whether it can be adapted in other countries. This has been proven over decades. The question, rather, is what can actually be considered an adequate adaptation, based on Kodály’s original ideas. This requires a large amount of in-depth work, built upon the musical-cultural traditions of each country, each community, each cultural environment. I have come across some outstanding, beautiful work in various places, led by some profoundly dedicated and highly trained musicians. Sometimes such beautiful work is carried out not under the ’label’ of Kodály, but nonetheless corresponds with his ideas. I certainly have the greatest respect for the invaluable work of these music educators, whose sincere commitment and musical qualities can become a life-changing experience for generations.

However, in many cases some methodological elements are turned into gimmicks, get overemphasized, taken out of context, and lack the fundamental musical background. The necessity of balance applies also to the specific elements of music education. Often certain elements are given much more emphasis than others, probably because they seem to be easier to grasp, or they seem to bring quicker, spectacular results, even though out of context, and without serving the main goal of musical instruction. Frequently this leads to another gap: between the tools and the final goal of music teaching.

In my interview made with Lajos Bárdos in 1977 – while I was still a student at the Liszt Academy – he makes the following comment regarding this concern:

“Unfortunately, it happens often to great inventions that over the time the tools turn into the goal itself, while the real objective, transmitting the love of music, fades away. Teaching and assessing the technical tools are certainly not sufficient. We have to strive to complement these tools with the general, universal musical elements, to avoid getting stuck on a preparatory level.” Later again Bárdos emphasizes the main goal: to breathe new life into the love of singing, the love of music. (Lilla Gábor: In the Footsteps of Kodály’s Pedagogy 1977) (Gábor Lilla: Kodály pedagógiájának nyomában I. 1977) (Translation by the author of the publication)

It was Kodály’s belief that a high level of teacher training is indispensable, and is the key to the future of music education. The importance of highly trained music educators cannot be overemphasized. The understanding of methodological sequencing cannot be a substitute for musicianship either. It rather needs to be built upon, or emerge from the solid foundation of musicianship.

The musical repertoire appropriate for teaching – including art music materials from all styles – is endless. In my experience, children often get exposed to art music very late, and to a rather limited repertoire. There seems to be a mysterious gap between folk music and art music in music teaching. In order to incorporate an extensive musical repertoire in the instruction on all levels, we all need to constantly expand our own knowledge of repertoire, as well as geographically extend the sources. There is a world-wide wealth of gorgeous musical repertoire which, due to geographical and cultural distance, hardly reaches across the globe. Cultural identity and a deep understanding of other cultures are certainly not contradictory concepts, – it is rather the opposite, they go hand in hand.

Kodály’s famous statement is often quoted about ”the criteria of a good musician: a well-trained ear, a well-trained intellect, a well-trained heart and well-trained fingers. These four need to be developed simultaneously, and kept in constant balance.” This goal demands continuous pursuit of a complex human and professional growth. It is a never-ending process.

Since Kodály's death – over the course of five decades – the historical, cultural environment has undergone a significant transformation. The new generation growing up, the young children of our age, have a particular need for the kind of education which only music – and art in general – can provide. The accelerating technological revolution has offered new possibilities, but it has also generated new challenges. Technology has made communication faster, but not necessarily deeper. The general speed of life has been rapidly growing, while the attention span is gradually decreasing, and the concentration level is often superficial. Music education can be the most powerful way to fight these tendencies, educating children to absorb the deepest human qualities: emotional enrichment, sensitivity and empathy. In my opinion, the best bridge for in-depth understanding and communication between distant cultures may be art, and music in particular.

Despite the excellent work of some outstanding music educators, Kodály’s charismatic presence, intellectual power, insight and vision are still painfully missed. However, his rich cultural legacy continues to be alive, inspiring new generations to benefit from its universal values around the world.

Lilla Gábor