It’s Been Internationally Praised and Nationally Recognized. So Why is the Kodály Music Education Method Disappearing from Hungary?

Despite the fact that the Kodály method is a UNESCO cultural heritage and became a “Hungaricum” last year, it is now hardly used at all in the musical education of Hungarian children anymore. Why? According to Dénes Szabó, a Kossuth Prize-winning conductor, music teacher, and director of the Cantemus family of choirs, among other things, this is because the method does not produce enough financial profit.

Szabó, whose Cantemus choir received a number of prestigious awards last year, including being named band of the season by the Palace of Arts (Müpa), gave an interview to Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet about the current state and future of Hungarian music education and the success of the Hungarian choirs.

Dénes Szabó, Kossuth prize winner conductor, music teacher. (photo: Béla Nagy / Magyar Nemzet)

Dénes Szabó say that after the end of Communism and the regime change that accompanied it, Kodály-style music schools were gradually excluded from the Hungarian educational system. Nowadays, there is hardly any institution where teachers consistently use the famous Kodály method, which focuses on the expressive and creative skills of musicianship, rather than the theory or instrument skills.

He say that his own school, the Music Primary School in Nyíregyháza, was also threatened with closure, but thanks to the local government, the institution survived. He is not so positive about the survival of the Kodály method though. Although UNESCO put it on its list of cultural heritages, and last year it became a “Hungaricum”, it is slowly disappearing from schools.

Szabó thinks it is mainly because the complex system of the Kodály method is based on community and on the harmonious development of body and soul. Kodály thought – and later researchers, such as Tamás Freund confirmed – that the human brain develops differently when a child learns music from a very young age, and such learning makes it easier to learn lexical knowledge later. As today  education focuses on the individual rather than the community, Kodály’s method is not “fashionable” anymore.

Szabó added that the disappearance of the method probably has something to do with the fact as well that the business world cannot make any profit out of it.

Our voice is free, we show the solmization signs with our hands, we can use our fingers as the five staves. It cost you no money to use the Kodály method, you cannot buy these things.

Szabó said that abroad, the Kodály method is still a peculiarity, and foreigners do not understand why Hungarians let it fade away.

But the director of the Cantemus choir is not only afraid that the Kodály method will disappear from schools, but also thinks that the quality of the whole international choir and modern classical music scene is getting worse as well. He said that, for a couple of decades, thanks to the ‘Singing Youth’ movement, which started between the two world wars, and the hard work of Zoltán Kodály, Lajos Bárdos, Jenő Ádám, György Kerényi and Benjámin Rajeczky, there was no international choir competition without Hungarian success.

One of the basic elements of the Kodály method is social equality and every child has to sing in chorus, regardless of their abilities. Although not everyone is born with absolute hearing, solmization is perfect to introduce the true essence of music to children with weaker musical abilities. Szabó say that in Kodály-style schools, music becomes a part of the lives of the students and every child can be taught to sing at a very high standard. The first Kodály-style music school was founded in Kecskemét in the early 1950s, followed by a number of others; this, according to Szabó, is the reason why Hungarian choirs were among the best in the world.

Now, Szabó claims that the quality of the international choir movement is declining due to the disappearance of talented amateur choirs who could perform just as well as – if not better than – professionals. He added that the music material is getting worse as well. Although there are spectacular compositions that try to adapt to the changes of the modern music world, they lack real musical qualities and cannot be compared to the works of Kodály, Bartók or Vajda. Sometimes, he claimed, some of the best choirs sing the worst music.

In a previous interview with Hungary Today, Kodály’s widow, Sarolta Péczely also discussed how the Kodály method is slowly disappearing from  Hungarian music education. While in the sixties there were around 120 music primary that taught music lessons every day, this number has declined significantly, and the remaining schools are struggling to keep themselves afloat.

You can watch a video on the Kodály-method here: