Composing a Concerto while the War is Raging

Vienna-Budapest. © Charles Thibo

More than a year ago I passed a rather expensive looking hotel in Vienna. Modern architecture, a lot of glass, a lot of metal, geometric forms, angular. The total opposite of what I associate with Vienna. The total opposite of what I cherish about Vienna. A provocation. Here’s another provocation, a rather brutal contrast to the classical music I traditionally associate with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: Zoltan Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra (K. 115). An impressive piece, full of edges, dynamic, powerful and well-balanced at the same time, with beautiful melodies and resounding harmonies, reminiscent of the generations of composers that preceded Kodaly.

Kodaly wrote this concerto between 1939 and 1940; the premiere took place on 6 February 1941 in Chicago, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At the time Kodaly wrote the piece, he was still a teacher at the Academy of Music in Budapest. Hungary was officially an ally of Nazi Germany. Its government had seen an opportunity to reverse territorial losses it had suffered in the past by joining Hitler’s expansionist dreams. War was raging all around while Kodaly composed. By 1941 the Hungarian government had succumbed to the pressure of Berlin and aligned its policy concerning Hungary’s 750 000 Jews: dispossession was to be followed by deportation and annihilation.

And Kodaly continued composing. When he retired from the academy in 1942, the year was declared the “Kodaly Year” by the Society of Hungarian Choruses, according to a biographical piece of Oxford Music Online. For Kodaly focal point was choral music. While the armies of the Axis penetrated deep into the Soviet Union, Kodaly wrote patriotic-revolutionary verses like “Petofi in Csatadal” (Battle Song), “Rabhazanak fia” (The Son of an Enslaved Country) and “Isten csodaja” (God’s Mercy). He apparently helped save people from persecution until he and his wife had to seek refuge in the cellar of a Budapest convent, where he completed his “Missa brevis”.

War and oppression trigger string negative feelings, and I always marvel at the fact that some artists are not paralysed but rather energized to work under such circumstances. Dmitry Shostakovich is such an example, Kodaly another. Fear, desperation, deprivation might be seeking a relief valve. Or the artist may seek an antidote to keep spirits high – his own and those of the audience. The concerto is a remarkable piece as it seems to illustrate how Kodaly oscillated between the two goals.

Kodaly’s Concerto for Orchestra has been recorded by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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