Zoltan Kodaly Biography

Zoltan Kodaly, a renowned Hungarian composer and musicologist, made significant contributions to the world of music. He not only composed beautiful works based on Hungarian folk songs but also revolutionized music education for young children. Alongside his friend Bela Bartok, he elevated the international recognition of Hungarian music by integrating folk music into his compositions. Despite facing criticism, Kodaly popularized folk music among Hungarians, who embraced it wholeheartedly. His influence as a musical pedagogue is as remarkable as his talent as a composer. His innovative teaching techniques inspired the development of the widely used Kodaly method, which taps into the natural musical abilities of children. Additionally, he composed numerous choral exercises specifically designed to enhance the skills of amateur singers. Even today, his legacy lives on through his enduring impact on music education and composition.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 84
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Emma Gruber (m. 1905–1958), Sarolta Péczely (m. 1959–1967), father: Frigyes Kodály, mother: Paulina Jalovetzky
  • Born Country: Hungary
  • Composers
  • Hungarian Men
  • Died on: March 6, 1967
  • Place of death: Budapest, Hungary
  • Notable Alumni: Franz Liszt Academy Of Music
  • More Facts
  • Education: Franz Liszt Academy Of Music

Childhood & Early Life

Zoltan Kodaly was born on 16 December 1882 in Kecskemét, Hungary. His father, Frigyes Kodály, was a railway stationmaster, and his mother’s name was Paulina nee Jalovetzky. He had two siblings, a brother named Pál Kodály and a sister called Emilia Kodály. The family moved frequently due to his father’s job, living in Galánta from 1884 to 1891. It was during this time that he first heard a famous Gypsy band play, which greatly influenced his music and inspired him to write Dances of Galánta many years later.

In 1892, the family moved to Nagyszombat (now Trnava, Slovakia), where Kodaly began singing in the cathedral choir and studying violin and piano. He also taught himself the cello to make his father’s quartet evenings more lively. It was in Nagyszombat that he began composing his early pieces. In 1897, one of his overtures was performed by his school orchestra, and in 1898, they played one of his Mass for chorus and orchestra.


In 1900, Kodaly entered Eötvös József Collegium in Budapest to study modern languages. However, in 1902, he left the institute to study composition at the Academy of Music. In 1905, he made his first field trip to collect folk songs, accompanied by his friend Béla Bartók. In 1906, he earned his PhD with a thesis entitled “The Strophic Structure of Hungarian Folk-Songs.” Later that year, he moved to Paris to study with Charles Widor and discovered the music of Claude Debussy.

In 1907, Kodaly returned to Budapest and began his career as a professor of music theory at the Budapest Academy of Music. He also started teaching composition in 1908 and served as a professor until his retirement in 1941. In 1945, he returned to the institute as its director. Throughout his teaching career, he continued to work on his own compositions, incorporating elements of Hungarian folk music. Some of his best-known works from this period include String Quartet No. 1 and Cello Sonata.


In 1923, Kodaly had his first breakthrough with Psalmus Hungaricus, a choral work celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda. This work received international acclaim and established Kodaly as a prominent composer. In 1926, he published his first stage work, a Hungarian folk opera entitled Háry János. He continued to compose and conduct throughout his career, creating works such as Galántai táncok (Dances of Galánta) and Te Deum.

Kodaly’s Methods

In addition to his compositions, Kodaly was passionate about improving music education. In 1925, he overheard children singing poorly and decided to reform the music education system. He wrote articles and essays to raise awareness and published a book called “Children’s Choirs” in 1929. In 1935, he began a long-term project to reform music teaching in lower and middle schools. He created new curriculums, teaching methods, and compositions for children, which had a significant impact on musical education in Hungary and abroad.

Later Works

Kodaly continued to compose and write scholarly works throughout his life. Some of his notable compositions from his later years include Concerto for Orchestra, Missa Brevis, and Symphony in C Major. He also wrote important scholarly works on Hungarian folk music. Kodaly’s most famous work, Psalmus Hungaricus, remains one of his major contributions to music.

Awards & Achievements

Kodaly received numerous awards and honors throughout his career. He was elected as a Member of the National Literary and Artistic Committee in 1934 and an Associate Member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. He served as the President of the International Folk Music Council and the Honorary President of the International Society for Music Education. He received the Order of the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1962 and the Herder Prize in 1965.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1910, Kodaly married Emma Schlesinger alias Sándor, an accomplished musician and folk song enthusiast. They had a happy marriage until Emma’s death in 1958. Kodaly remarried Sarolta Péczely in 1959 and remained married to her until his death. He passed away on 6 March 1967 in Budapest. Kodaly’s legacy lives on through his compositions, his contributions to music education, and the bronze statue erected in his honor in Pécs.

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