On the occasion of the 80th birthday of Zoltán Kodály, Denijs Dille, Belgian biographer of Béla Bartók, attempted to capture the differences and similarities in the personalities and compositional approach of the two composers, as well as explore the nature of their friendship. He found the differences more distinctive than the similarities: Dille characterized Kodály as having a purposeful way of thinking and a great desire to remain firmly within a determined cultural language, showing a tendency towards abstraction, being an open-minded spirit who identified with the nation and one who focused on accomplishment; Bartók, on the other hand, displayed a sensibility, an interest in various cultures, a belief in specifics, a focus not on nation but rather a more human-centric attitude, and a reliance on intuition. In their interpretations, Dille and many Bartók and Kodály themselves, since they, too, emphasized in their writings the differences apparent in their art.
Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály & János Busitia (Bartók's best Romanian friend) at Biharfüred, in 1918
Even though they were contemporaries at the Liszt Academy, it was only in 1905, at the salon of Emma Gruber (later to become the wife of Kodály), that the two composers met for the first time. Surviving documents indicate that their meeting was overshadowed by an awkward difference of political opinion. However, the intellectually far more mature – albeit younger – Kodály quickly exercised such a great influence on Bartók, who was even at that time considered the great hope of Hungarian music circles, that the latter soon dropped his chauvinistic views. Nevertheless, a close personal relationship unfolded within the frame of a common interest – the collection of folk music – and the private student of the two musicians, the future Mrs Kodály, played a key role in ensuring the deepening of this personal bond. In many respects, in the area of folk music research just as in composition, Bartók considered Kodály, a humanities graduate of the Eötvös school, his master and a person to look up to. It is a fact that Kodály was far more at ease in the worlds of culture, science, music history and politics, and reflected as an independent thinker on the world around him.
From 1906 each began to share insights into their work and way of thinking with one another, and Kodály, who later went on to become a professor of composition, gave advice to his friend on technical issues on several occasions. At their first composers’ recitals (17 and 19 March 1910) both presented their String Quartet No. 1, which indicates that they themselves wanted to develop parallel oeuvres and purposefully set about creating history in music in Hungary as twin stars. Compositions written up to 1923 (the year of the birth of Psalmus Hungaricus and Dance Suite) reveal numerous aesthetic-poetic points of contact: autobiographical aspects dominate in the piano and chamber works of both artists, and we may thus view them as significant diaries of a kind. One personal touch is the third part of Bartók’s Sketches cycle, which he dedicated to Zoltán and Emma on the occasion of their wedding in August 1910.
Both composers reacted with a specific depressive tone to the outbreak of the First World War, with slow closing movements dominating Bartók’s works (Suite, Op. 14, String Quartet No. 2) and dark colours of old age 5 apparent in Kodály’s compositions (songs from Belated Melodies, Op. 6). In both their oeuvres the shaping to music of the female figure in love became a central theme (for Bartók in the Wooden Prince as well as the songs Opus 15 and Opus 16; for Kodály in Sappho’s Love Song). However, the tragic conclusion of the war brought with it a parting of the ways for these two composers: Bartók initially turned to Schoenberg-like Expressionism, then Neoclassicism as hallmarked by Stravinsky, and his art became increasingly recognized globally. By the end of the 1930s, he was considered internationally as the third great composer of Modernism, alongside Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Kodály oriented towards consciously accepted traditionalism, and despite his international success coming somewhat later than that of Bartók, he decided to play an active role in public education in Hungary: his many works for youth, his choral music founded on Hungarian poetry and folk music, and the promotion of his music education methods, as well as the ‘Singing Youth’ movement, were all targeted towards this very purpose.
In the background of this parting of ways we can discern the polar opposite responses of Bartók and Kodály to the politics of the day, primarily the trauma of Trianon, which impacted directly – and heavily – on both. The hypersensitive though strongly individualistic Bartók escaped the reality of a fractured Hungary (its denial of turn-of-the-century modernization, the stripping of its identity and leaning towards Nazism) in the direction of the West: his sorrowful confessions on his homeland were played out in the concert halls of the world. The educator Kodály, on the other hand, strove for the creation of a more – in terms of its music and history – culturally united Hungary. He aimed for the formation of a better world through his works, which carried a disguised political message that built on 18th-century Classical and Enlightenment idealism. The common issue of their scientific association, folk music research, suffered as a result of the promulgation of their new disparate ideals, both in their lives and their art: when in 1940 Bartók left Hungary, Kodály considered the folk music systemization he left behind to be inconsistent. In one of his letters to Bartók, it is apparent that they had not discussed the methodology to be used for this systemization of the collection for many years.
In the wake of the death of Bartók in September 1945, Kodály – who outlived him by 22 years – felt it vital on several occasions to summarize for posterity his recollections of his relationship with Bartók, to write down how he viewed his good friend, one of the greatest composer geniuses of the 20th century. In the end, his volumes on Bartók (Bartók and Hungarian Youth, 1946; Bartók the Folklorist, 1950; From Szentirmay to Bartók, 1955) are imbued with the tenderness of their early friendship, a critical, analytical approach both from within and outside of the Bartók oeuvre, as well as a certain level of resignation. And this is not solely the resignation of an old man, but instead a spiritual figure who, having confronted the age in which he lived, perhaps self-critically, too, recognizes the principal virtue of his friend. According to this, Bartók’s oeuvre warns posterity, first and foremost, “that the path to truth lies through indisputable realities, and anyone straying from this path shall be irretrievably lost in the fog of illusions.”