A Year in Kecskemét by Barbara Jenkinson

from BKA Newsletter, Summer 2004

I first visited Kecskemét over ten years ago, and although I had already heard of the Kodály Institute, after looking around it, I realised how much I would like to study there. It was only after several subsequent visits, the summer school in 2001, and the award of the IKS scholarship, that I could finally achieve this ambition. I took the advanced pedagogical course there between September 2003 and May 2004, and have just returned to England. It was a great experience. The solfege class of Zsuzsa Kontra proved to be quite demanding and yet there were many times when I thought how lucky I was to be sitting within the walls of this beautiful old Franciscan monastery singing Renaissance motets and much more besides! Somehow there is a timeless quality to life in Kecskemét and long may it last. Of course as a new student I had to follow the whole pedagogical programme and one of the things that struck me first was how full that programme was compared to an English university or music college course. Well over twenty hours of classes a week in both semesters meant a busy schedule and lots of work! At the same time I was really impressed by the real love of good music that all the teachers demonstrated. (NB. Kathy Hulme described the contents of the course in detail in the last issue of the newsletter).

Of course Kodály’s approach means that all the areas of study are integrated, and through singing comes the development of musical skills and inner hearing. The study of conducting, for example, is so sadly neglected from most English music teachers’ preparation and yet here it is not only central but taught with an emphasis on good and exacting technique. I feel we have gone far too far down the road here in England of allowing students (at 16, 18 and beyond) to opt for areas they feel are their strengths, thus allowing such things as aural skills to be sidelined. It was a most salutary experience to see children in the third grade at the Kodály School memorising easily and in the sixth grade (our Yr7) being able to do tasks many of my A level students would have found a struggle. The standard of musicianship demonstrated by the children at this school is breathtaking, to say the least, and their dedication even more so.

My previous association with the Kodály School meant that they invited me to stay in a small flat in the school. As well as the many concerts that all the students are openly invited to, I often found myself in other interesting situations as well. For example, the auditions for entry into the school’s first grade, the kindergarten after-school music class, numerous choir rehearsals and concerts, lessons in the Gimnasium (secondary school) and the specialist music school. Here I could watch conducting classes for the pupils and the Music in English Class, an option for the oldest pupils (age15-18), where Kata Ittzes teaches a most impressive syllabus of English music repertoire and history, from the Old Hall manuscript to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Britten and beyond. Later in the year, the János Starker cello competition occupied a whole weekend with outstanding cello students from all over Hungary taking part and a few weekends after, a seminar on music education took place with demonstration classes and concerts.

Another fascinating experience was accompanying the Miraculum Children’s Choir to Budapest to rehearse with the conductor Iván Fischer in songs for a memorial concert of music by the composer Pál Kadosa (1903-1983) in the new Millennium Concert Hall. Just before Christmas another trip with the choir was to the Austrian Embassy to sing seasonal music in the most beautiful setting, and in March I was fortunate to be invited to the performance of some works by Emma Kodály at the Kodály Museum.

There were many other concert trips, notably to hear András Schiff at the Jewish synagogue in Szeged, the Tallis Scholars and the Robert King concert at the Mathias Church in Budapest, the St Matthew Passion at the Liszt Academy, and in Kecskemét, the Banchieri singers, the Japanese Radio Children’s Choir, the Bohem Jazz Festival, the Spring Festival, Marta Sebestyen and a wealth of fantastic choral and instrumental concerts in the school. There always seemed to be something interesting happening even in the depths of the Hungarian winter!

The eminent composer Miklós Kocsár (born 1933) celebrated his eightieth birthday by a series of concerts across Hungary. The concert in Kecskemét in January consisted of choral and instrumental works, including the Salve Regina and Four Madrigals sung by the Miraculum Children’s Choir and culminating in a performance of his Magnificat for choir and orchestra with the Institute’s Pedagogical Choir and the Kecskemét Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Petér Erdei.

In June it was the turn of Erszébet Szönyi (born 1934). Two of her children’s operas were performed for a whole week in the Cultural Centre by the children of the Miraculum Choir, and a wonderful celebration concert (including a superb performance of her songs, by Katalin Szutrély) was given in the school as well.

The Ars Nova Choir was founded in Kecskemét by Dr Katalin Kiss and although the choir now performs more regularly in Budapest, on 16th March the choir gave a concert in the old Kodály School, celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Miklós Csemiczky. He is one of a group of ‘four’ composers whose work Dr Kiss champions, and the evening ended with three pieces written for the occasion by the other three (György Orbán, János Vajda and György Selmeczi).

With this feast of music making, I am wondering how I managed to do any work! But all these experiences seemed to enhance the coursework somehow. Seeing the practical implementation on a day-to-day basis made it all come to life. In any case, I did manage to do plenty of study and one thing of particular interest was the individual class I had with Kati Kiss, studying the choral music of ‘The Four’, and with Mihály Ittzes, studying other contemporary Hungarian composers.

It is most interesting to see how the work of Kodály has developed over the past fifty years, not only in the music of contemporary composers, but in the ‘Singing Youth’ Festival for Secondary school choirs (featuring eleven choirs just from the town!), the Bacs-Kiskun (County) Festival for primary school choirs (featuring even more but from a wider area), and two festivals I attended in the Hungarian-speaking part of Slovakia, where it is continuing energetically as well. There are so many excellent children’s and girls’ choirs in Hungary, and some boy’s choirs as well.

Ironically, it was Kodály’s visit to England in the 1920’s, when he was so impressed by the standard of choral singing and music training in schools, that led him to start his pedagogical movement. Drawing on his already established position as folk-music researcher and composer, he was in a unique position to establish a system that was all-embracing. Fifty years on the Hungarians have the advantage that their music education is now a strong and unfaltering tradition and whatever is happening elsewhere in Europe, they, at least, continue to train and develop good musicians in the most musical way.

So to Éva Vendrei, Sarolta Platthy, Orsolya Szabo, Roland Hajdu, János Klézli and those I already mentioned, enormous thanks for a ‘wonderful’ year and my thanks to László Durányik for inviting me to absolutely everything at the Kodály School. Check out the new website for more information, including a reunion of old Kodályan students in August 2005.

Congratulations to Barbara for being awarded an Advanced Diploma from the Kodály Pedagogical Institute! Barbara has over twenty years experience of music teaching at primary and secondary levels. She is now hoping to continue teaching part-time, whilst developing a free-lance career with Kodály workshops, classes, inset etc. She is also planning another tour for the Aurin Girls’ Choir, June 2005 and the Miraculum Children’s Choir, June 2006 If you are interested in hosting the choir(s) or with any other aspect of her work, including workshops etc please contact her on 01749 812708 or by email b.jenkinson@ukonline.co.uk