Voices of Change

by Christopher Lambton, BBC Music Magazine 2006

The singing technique developed by Zoltán Kodály breathed new life into music teaching both in his native Hungary and beyond. Christopher Lambton looks at his methods and visits the institute which celebrates its 30th birthday.

To concert-goers today Zoltán Kodály comes, at best, a distant third in the list of well known Hungarian composers, behind Liszt and Bartók. Outside Hungary, performances of his patriotic choral masterpiece Psalmus Hungaricus are rare, while the Peacock Variations, the Dances of Galánta and of Marosszék and the Háry János suite tend to appear as colourful appetisers in weighty symphonic programmes. But in the field of music education, Kodály is a towering figure, hugely admired all over the globe. His philosophy, research, writings and choral music are analysed and disseminated with near-religious fervour. His message, almost 40 years after his death, grows stronger by the day.

Travel to the market town of Kecskemét, 60 miles south of Budapest on the Great Hungarian Plain, and you will find the world famous Kodály Institute, Kodály’s father worked for the railways, so it was by the lottery of employment rather than any greater destiny that the composer was born in the town’s railway station in 1882. Over the next century Kecskemét gained in size and importance as an administrative capital. It has an exquisite theatre, a modern concert hall, and numerous museums. But it still retains something of a small town atmosphere – stallholders stream to the market with fruit and vegetables and, barely five minutes from the centre, cockerels crow in dusty streets. English is only rarely spoken. Meanwhile within the walls of a former Franciscan monastery – a long building with an austere white façade punctuated by small barred windows – students from all nations gather to learn more about Kodály’s philosophy, music, and pedagogical theories. Some of the best teachers in Hungary, if not the world, come here to share their accumulated wisdom. And, in contrast with outside, everything here happens, remarkably, in English.


The Kodály Institute was founded in 1975, but to trace its history we have to go back to September 1928 and to Gloucester Cathedral, where the 46-year-old Kodály arrived to take part in the Three Choirs Festival. A frequent visitor – he would later be fêted by an enthusiastic critic as “Three Choirs personality No.1” – Kodály was due to conduct Psalmus Hungaricus which had been premiered in Hungary in 1923. A year later he had added a part for children’s choir, but rehearsals reinforced his impression that children, generally, found such music difficult to learn. In Gloucester, by contrast, the young singers learnt it quickly. Kodály attributed this in part to the English choral tradition, which he admired. But he realised there was another reason: all the scores had been annotated with the symbols of the ‘tonic sol-fa’ system.

Under this system, developed in the 19th century by Tonic Sol-Fa College founder and self-taught musician John Spencer Curwen, each note of the scale is given both a name and a hand signal. Even non-musicians who have never sung will recognise the names – Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do – maybe thanks to the advocacy of Maria in The Sound of Music. Curwen had developed the tonic sol-fa system, but it was Kodály who saw in it a solution to the gathering cloud of music illiteracy that was darkening his home country. He was already dismayed by how little and badly music was being taught in schools, was acutely aware of Hungary’s dismal performance in geopolitical struggles and saw education as a way to recover some national self-esteem.


So he returned to Hungary with the Curwen books and over the next decade revised and refined tonic sol-fa. In 1937 he coined the phrase ‘Relative Solmisation’ for a system that was fundamentally unchanged but better explained. He also invented new hand signals and simpler rhythm names, which in time worked their way back to England – today, the terms of ‘sol-fa’, ‘solmisation’, and the French equivalent ‘college’ are used more or less interchangeably.

But for Kodály, college was only one instrument in a wide range of ideas for improving the Hungarian music education system. ‘Music is for everyone,’ he said. He believed that music could help define national identity (a precious commodity in a country more often occupied by foreign powers than not) and was determined to weed out the Germanic influence that had taken root in the days of Austria-Hungary. He insisted that music could never enjoy a popular following unless it was firmly based on folk traditions. To that end, like Bartók, he collected folk songs with obsessive thoroughness, looking further and further back in time to find the ‘true’ music of the ancient Magyar settlers. He dismissed radio and television as distractions that polluted children’s ears and with ‘ignoble’ music. Above all, believing that the human voice was mankind’s greatest gift, he aimed to establish classroom singing at the earliest possible age and became a prolific composer of songs and choruses for children. When asked how early music education should start, he famously replied ‘Nine months before the birth of the child,’ then adding, ‘nine months before the birth of the mother.’


Fast forward to September 2005, and at the opening ceremony of the autumn semester, professor Péter Erdei, director of the Kodály Institute, surveys his audience. Those who have come to Kecskemét during this 30th anniversary year include students from the USA, Canada, Mexico, the UK, New Zealand, Greece, Norway, Korea, Japan and China. About 20 in all, they sit in line on heavily carved wooden chairs. Some are recent music graduates; some have come as part of an exchange programme with their university; others, more than twice their age, are seeking new inspiration for an established teaching career. The students pledge to work to the best of their abilities and everyone rises solemnly for the Hungarian national anthem.

It is fundamental to the Kodály method that music is taught through experience. He said that children should be able to ‘hear what they see, and write what they hear’. Teachers, he added, should be musicians of the highest ability. To this end, the Institute resembles a musical Gymnasium with courses that include piano pedagogy, folk music, solfége, Kodály philosophy, methodology, and conducting. By the end of a year the singing of intervals, the recognition of harmonies, and the ability to ‘hear’ music printed on the page becomes second nature. To sing a piece of music in sol-fa is, in effect, to analyse it. Quite early on students are expected to sing one part of a three-part cannon while playing the two others on the piano. Class sizes range from small to tiny; students team up with a partner for chamber music; vocal and instrumental teachers are provided as required; the choir is obligatory. Most students live in former monks’ cells upstairs, which adds to the hot-house feel – one student once famously attended early morning solfége classes in her pyjamas.

Kodály did not live to see the Institute created in his name, but he began its work many years before. From the beginning of World War II, his theories had started to find practical applications and in 1950 a teacher in Kecskemét called Márta Nemesszeghy started a school in which music was taught according to Kodály principles. The results were encouraging – not only did the teaching work for music but pupils performed better in other subjects too, a spin-off that is now well recognised. By 1956, the government saw the potential benefits of the Kodály method and authorised its use across the country. But at no point did Kodály ever write a detailed method, or teacher’s manual; by then he was in his 70s and saw his role as a figurehead and facilitator. ‘He was the best of cultural politicians,’ says Péter Erdei.

By this time the Cold War was beginning to thaw, and westerners were able to get a glimpse of life in the east through what Erdei calls ‘a chink in the Iron curtain’. When it came to music education in Hungary, they liked what they saw. In 1964 the International Society for Music Education (ISME) conference was held in Budapest. Three years later an entire class from the Liszt Academy was invited to the World Exhibition in Montreal. Erdei, then a student, recalls how the lessons were witnessed by international experts from behind glass screens.

In 1969, two years after the composer’s death, Erdei helped found the Kodály Music training Institute near Boston in the USA followed the next year, at the instigation of Kodály’s widow Sarolta, by the first of a biannual series of Kodály Seminars in Kecskemét. Then, on 15 June 1973, the Hungarian Cultural Minister issued an order for the foundation of the Kodály Institute. The abandoned Franciscan monastery, then in use as offices for the state wine cellars, was offered by the town, and conversion was complete in time for the new academic year in 1975.

From the beginning, the Institute operated in English, since the aim was to spread the Kodály system beyond Hungary. Institute staff, such as Professor Mihály Ittzés, who has been there since the beginning, had to learn English to get the job. ‘In the communist days it was a western oasis,’ recalls David Vinden, a student in the early 1980s and today Professor of Kodály Musicianship at Trinity College of Music. ‘Those who taught here were allowed rare contact with people from the West.’ Access for ordinary Hungarians, meanwhile, was tightly controlled. In the 30 years since, the Institute itself has changed little (last year it became a subsidiary department of the Liszt Academy in Budapest) but the world has changed around it. The presence of westerners, according to Péter Erdei, has had a beneficial effect on Kecskemét, ‘opening its eyes to the world beyond Hungary’. In turn, the town has made the most of its famous son. From the pink façade of the fastidiously decorated town hall, an elaborate carillon chimes a plangent tune by Kodály every other hour, carefully timed to avoid clashing with the deeper chimes from the Nagy Templom, or Great Church, on the other side of the square. Kecskemét is justly proud.

Like the Kodály Institute, the British Kodály Academy in London promotes his techniques and philosophy through a variety of means, from weekly tuition to more intensive courses (www.britishkodalyacademy.org). The Voices Foundation, meanwhile, is spearheading a revival of singing in the community. It has trained 10,000 teachers using Kodály methods adapted for multi-ethnic schools. Jolly Phonics, an established system of language teaching, is planning to branch out into music with a CD-based system that has a lot in common with Kodály. But perhaps the most striking application of Kodály ideas lies with the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCoS), now celebrating its 10th anniversary. By means of local training choirs, NYCoS hopes to provide the top-down impetus to rekindle classroom singing. Director Christopher Bell’s most recent project is inspired. Disappointed by the repertoire available, he has commissioned ten leading Scottish composers to each write three songs for youth choirs, graded bronze, silver, or gold according to complexity. The results will be published in book form so as to make a permanent addition to the repertoire.

Glasgow City Council