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Zoltan Kodaly

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

I. Zoltan Kodaly

Zoltan Kodaly was born in 1882 in Kecskemét, Hungary. At the time of the Russo-Turkish war, the second industrial revolution, and the beginnings of Hungarian romanticism, and the invention of the phonograph. Kodaly moved around a great deal as a child hearing the many folk musics of the balkans on a train line between Vienna and Budapest.

From a musical family, Kodaly began western-classical violin at an early age. In 1900, he began to study music and joined the department of Languages at the university of Budapest. It was here that Kodaly began to take interest in the idea of preserving the music he heard along train lines through his adolescence. Alongside his classmate, Bela Bartok, Kodaly began an ethnomusicological catalog of wax cylinder recordings and transcriptions of Romani Verbunkos music.

Previously an entirely aural tradition, some of the first manuscripts indicating the styles and functions of ‘Verbunkos’ music were made in 1730, nearly a hundred years before Kodaly began his documentation efforts.

II. Verbunkos

In the 18th century, Romani bands would accompany dancing soldiers in roadside taverns. The dance form had a primary function to assist in the recruitment of men into the Austro-Hungarian army. (The name "verbunkos" is derived from the German word "Werbung," which means "to recruit.") Visiting soldiers would perform a series of dances, starting with dignified ones and gradually progressing to more youthful and exuberant dances which increased in tempo from a Lassu (slow tempo) to a Friss (fast 2/4 or 4/4 style).

The bands which accompanied the original Verbunkos dancers were largely Romani musicians who by means of recruiters could redeem their unpaid taxes. This led to Romani musicians finding socio-economic mobility through music as a career as the initial social background to the style (an emerging middle class) soon shifted as Romani ensembles gradually replaced peasant musicians in villages and went on to entertain rural nobility.

By the time that Kodaly would have gained interest in music, Verbunkos (once a generalized label for many musics) had by then diverged into styles such as Csardas, Magyar Nota which gained national attention across broad social strata.

The music was considered highly fashionable and widely associated with both virtuosic Romani musicians and Hungarian national pride. The Hungarian Orchestra of Pest had featured Romani artists such as János Bihari (21 October 1764 – 26 April 1827). Though decades after its founding, Bihari was considered one of the founders of the genre with his highly celebrated orchestra of one cimbalomist and 4 violinists. Mark Rózsavölgyi (born Mordecai Rosenthal; changed his name to assimilate amongst Hungarian elites and possibly to hide his Jewish heritage) became regarded as the father of Csardas music.

Serkento Czardas by Rózsavölgyi:

Music performed, composed, and pioneered by Romani and Jewish musicians had reached such popularity as to influence the works white “academic” composers (Lizt, Erkel, Mosonyi). The pianist Franz Liszt, who would later adapt melodies from Bihari, is quoted describing "The tones sung by his magic violin” as “flow(ing) on our enchanted ears like tears...". Bihari's melodies were used by Ludwig van Beethoven, Pablo de Sarasate and others. Liszt also used some of Rózsavölgyi's melodies in his own Hungarian Rhapsodies (nos. 8 and 12).

When Kodaly began to record and transcribe folk melodies (1905), the music had shifted out of the hands of its progenitors. Kodaly and Bartok would have understood the music as a relic or scattered trail of folk influences lost to time.

By the 1850’s, Verbunkos was no longer used as recruitment music. It became part of Hungarian romanticism, influencing contemporary stage performances, literature, composed music, and peasant culture. New harmonic influences came from Viennese, Turkish, and European academic styles and Hungarian music evolved to rely more heavily on modal usage, which helped incorporate new instruments and influences while still maintaining its unique identity. Publishers became keen to use Hungarisms (labeled as alla turca, all’ ongherese/ungherese/zingarese) as new art music styles took over through works of renowned academic composers.

III. Perspectives

Kodaly and Bartok transcriptions would have been heavily influenced by the norms of their time.

Western classical music is bound to time signatures, notated rhythms, and general conceptions of how one would ornament the transcriptions.

Styles of Romani communities are spread by aural tradition. Whereas a trained musician might notate a song in ⅞, a Romani band might interpret the rhythmic structure as patterns of long and short beats; thus changing the accents, ornaments, and fundamental understanding of how one might play with the interpretation of melodies. Take for example the art music form ‘Nota.’

One of the defining characteristics of Nota is its almost tempo-less nature, which distinguishes it from other Hungarian genres. Due to this unique attribute, the meter and phrasing of the music constantly change, following the interpretations and variations of the band leader. This requires a deep understanding of the wide range of musical patterns and variations in Hungarian melodies.

Notably, the overall structure of nota is mainly instrumental, while still being based on the text (lyrics) of the song. The melody typically plays a crucial role in guiding the band leader's interpretation of the timing and phrasing to emphasize specific syllables or lines.

Despite these hurdles, we shouldn’t take for granted the enormous ethnomusicological endeavor taken up by these two men. Yes, Kodaly would have been shaped by the time in which he did his work, but if he had waited any longer we might not have seen abstractions of these melodies at all. Their extensive field research led to a wide production of works using folk music as its basis, and it has laid the ground for other composers in the field of folk music revival.

Sadly the outbreak of the first world war put a halt to transcription and documentation efforts. Following the losses of two-thirds of its territory and near sixty percent loss of its pre-war population ,Hungary saw multiple power shifts and reorganization of its political system.

The second world war, communist rule, and the fall of the USSR changed national perceptions on who is Hungarian. Right wing ideologies became pervasive and soon Romani music styles like Nota (once a high art) became associated with drunkenness and roadside taverns.

IV. What did this corpus teach us?

By 1913, Kodály and Bartók had collected close to 3000 folk songs; capturing an image of working music just before a great onset of a changing world. Comparing these transcriptions and the works of artists like Rózsavölgyi and Bihari to that of other national styles, ethnomusicologists have been able to pinpoint specific aspects of Verbunkos and csardas music that contribute to its overall ‘Hungarian’ sound.


Hungarian dance music often switches between a Lassu (slow) section and a Friss (fast) section; often starting with the Lassu in either a slow 2/4, 4/4 or Rubato style.

Rhythmically, the Lassu and medium-fast parts are notated as sharply dotted 4 /4 rhythms.


The Friss parts are often in major tonality whereas the Lassu is typically in minor tonalities.

A specifically Hungarian feature of the music is the pentatonic scale. The Hungarian pentatonic scale is similar to the natural minor scale, but with the second and sixth scale degrees removed (ex. Key of A; A, C, D, E, G, A).

In Aeolian (natural minor) tunes there are many augmented and diminished steps attributed to Turkish influence when from 1514-1685 Turkish forces occupied sections of the Carpathian basin. (1 2 ♭3 ♯4 5 ♭6 7 | Key of C; C D Eb F# G Ab B C)

The music transcribed and adapted by Kodaly and Bartok is still being studied to build a deeper understanding of Verbunkos, Csardas, Magyar Nota, and other folk songs.

For more on these two, transcriptions, collections, and studies; please visit some of the links below!

Works by Kodaly (IMSLP):

A Historical Overview and Analysis of the Use of Hungarian Folk Music in Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite, Dances of Marosszék, and Dances of Galánta Copyright 2011 Author: Corinne Kay Ong:

Béla Bartók’s Eight Hungarian Folk Songs for Voice and Piano: Vocal Style as Elaborated by Harmonic, Melodic, and Text Factors by Yu-Young Lee, B.M.; M.M.


Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Braşov Series VIII: Art • Sport • Vol. 5 (54) No. 1 - 2012 THE VERBUNKOS, A MUSIC GENRE AND MUSICAL SYMBOL OF HUNGARY Lujza TARI1

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