Only art of intrinsic value is suitable for children by Michalis Patseas

The choice of music literature appropriate for education according to Kodály’s principles.
Keynote speech given at the 2005 IKS Symposum.


The Kodály Concept is the major music pedagogy philosophy that the 20th Century has bequeathed to the 21st. Methods must be based on deep philosophical roots and must provide fresh answers to old and new questions. We must find scientific and persuasive arguments for our ideals. ‘Well-organized music lessons in the curriculum of general education’ is not automatically accepted as essential when MP3, Fame Story and Eurovision Junior appear to have realized the “Music must belong to everybody” motto. “Musical mother tongue” cannot easily be defined when Anglo-American pop music is the dominant sound. The “music specialist” does not appear to be a necessity when the average teacher can handle a CD player and can conduct a discussion about music appreciation. The choice of music literature is not an easy thing in the era of music abundance. The motto“only art of intrinsic value is suitable for children” has been pointed out as “politically incorrect”. For lots of people the weekly Top Ten, the Grammy Awards and MTV is the epitome of music democracy and we are music ayatollahs! How can we fight against similar arguments? By making clear that there is no real choice without knowledge. By acquiring a vast knowledge of the literature, in order to be able to pick the very best of those that are appropriate for a specific class at a certain moment. Finally by believing in the force of the ‘intrinsic value’ of quality music.

Full text:

Dear colleagues,

My main duty is to analyze some of the principles to which the music teacher should adhere in order to decide what to teach. In so doing, we are going to travel through some of the basic principles of Zoltán Kodály followed sometimes by my humble remarks.

1. Kodály and the 21st Century…

Zoltán Kodály was a genius but nevertheless a child of his time. He received the best high-school, university and music education that a young citizen of the Austrian Empire belonging to the Hungarian “upper middle class” could get. He was nourished with the best ideals: classical antiquity, humanism, Christian faith and the awakening of the Hungarian Nationalism. He was born and raised in a multi-national and multi-cultural empire; he lived his most productive years surviving the birth of the Hungarian nation-state, one socialist revolution, one fascist dictatorship and two world wars and he finally managed to put into practice his long-planned ideas during the communist regime. The Hungarian people honoured him. All the Hungarian governments had to pay respect to him, praise him and decorate him, although none of them trusted him because he never conformed. He was loyal to the nation and not to any party or politician!

The last quarter of the 20th century was full of rapid political, social and economic changes. Changes occurred also in the various fields that concern our work. There is a whole new field called “Education Sciences”. “Music Education” is becoming the newest branch, scattered among music universities and academies, departments of music studies, as well as music departments in teacher-training colleges and universities. New musicological branches emerge such as “Social Musicology.” The latter together with new ethnomusicology branches deal with “Popular Music” as well.

In this turmoil, we were the luckiest. The Kodály Concept has been a very good philosophical background. We have inherited some ideals that I think can be valuable for the future generations as well, provided we constantly find new scientific and persuasive arguments for them. For me, the Kodály Concept is the major music pedagogy philosophy that C.20th has passed to the 21st. Proving my claim is a very good theme for a doctoral dissertation, so I will only try to share some of my thoughts with you.

2. Music is of universal value…

“Music must belong to everybody” has been accomplished. Music is everywhere: It comes through radio, television, stereo, Walkman, MP3, ringtones in mobile phones, loudspeakers in supermarkets, elevators, cafeterias and restaurants. Music making is available to everybody: everyone has a chance at a karaoke party, and why not in Fame Story and Eurovision Junior. Obviously I am joking, but they are not. I have received similar answers from politicians, scientists, and educators.

Kodály has warned us about this danger: “The radio can only offer a substitute. If it is taken for real, then true live music will never be appreciated… it leads to total passivity…The contact with real music will be more and more shallow and unnatural”.

And he insisted that “The only way to be receptive to the experience of sounds is through (musical) reading and writing” .

I agree with Kodály in insisting that without reading and writing there is no literacy today, without literacy there is no knowledge, and with no knowledge there is no choice. The key word is “choice.” That is why we need well-organized music lessons in the curriculum of general education. I will return to the notion of “choice” at the end of this lecture. Until then, remember that music is of universal value.

3. Musical Mother Tongue and Folk Music…

Another important legacy that we have from Kodaly is that one “Musical Mother Tongue” exists (for every nation) and that it is necessary to begin education based on it. He believed that as o¬ne first learns and speaks a mother tongue and through that one later approaches the other languages, the same way one should first formulate a Musical Mother Tongue. He believed for example, that for the Hungarians this tongue consisted of Hungarian folk songs. He pointed out that the best connection between music and language exists in folk songs. He declared that “a good folk song is a perfect masterpiece in itself”.

For us these ideas are commonplace, but not for everybody else. Let us meditate a little upon four points related to “musical mother tongue and “folk music”:

(i) We must be aware that the notion of “Mother Tongue” is common in the ideas of 19th and 20th century nationalism. At that time Hungary was still in the process of forming a nation-state and of course nationalist ideas were very popular even among progressive people. The appropriation of these ideas by “Nationalists” and Fascists makes everybody cautious today but it does not allow anybody to condemn them entirely.

In any case, human beings always try to find characteristics that help them identify themselves as a member of a group. The procedure of forming a personal, local, national, cultural, etc. identity is essential and healthy as long as it does not lead to discrimination.

Kodály was a good example even during the dark years. In 1939 he points out that the folksongs not only “provide a great artistic benefit for the music life of the whole country” but play a very important role in social solidarity as “they help to change the false picture upheld by the urban population about peasants.” In 1937, at the preface of the “Bicinia Hungarica” he points out that once one possesses a mother tongue, the next step is to learn “as many foreign songs as possible, in the original language.”

(ii) A mother tongue functions as such when and because one learns it from one’s parents during the first years of one’s life. A lot of our critics emphasize the fact the folk song is not sung any more at home. Well, it was not even in Kodály’s time, at least not in the cities. He dreamed that it could be possible to “restore” Hungarian folk song as the “Mother Tongue” by introducing it in the elementary education.

Although it was proven very romantic, I have realized that even if the children do not regard folk music as their “musical mother tongue”, they spontaneously react well to it, provided it is well presented to them by their music teacher. Of course, the earlier this happens, the better the result.

(iii) In Greece we have experienced a “folk song revival” during the past 15 years. The foundation of 40 Music High-Schools and the introduction of traditional music as a compulsory element gave an even greater impetus to this folk song revival. Young people form groups and play original folk songs on traditional musical instruments. It is a positive fact but it did not have a greater impact in the society nor did it lead the people involved to broaden their interest with other forms of art music.

[It may be interesting for you to know that Greek Traditional Music is divided into Folk Music, Byzantine Church music and “Laiki” (=urban popular) music. The latter stems from the famous “Rebetika” songs and applies conventional temperament and harmonizing. Folk and Byzantine Church music still apply the traditional modes, temperament, intervals, monophonic structure and drone accompaniment. Last but not least, our traditional Byzantine Musical Notation, more than a thousand years old, updated during C.19th is still in use, giving us direct access to the music of hundreds of composers of those times.]

(iv) The last point concerns the use of folksongs in creating new art music.

We know that folk and art music have co-existed, interrelated and influenced each other in most cultures. Folk song has always been an endless resource for art music. Some well- known examples are the early Motet, the Baroque Suite form, the early Protestant Choral etc. Mozart, Beethoven, all the Romantic composers and last but not least all the composers of the various national schools have used folk music in every possible way: they have added piano or orchestral accompaniment to folk songs, they have arranged folk dances, they have used folk melodies, or they have incorporated folk melodic and rhythmic elements into bigger forms of art music.

Ethnomusicology became a science only after 1900. So, the main difference between the previous examples and Kodály is that he possessed a deep scientific knowledge of folk music, based on field research, whereas the others (eg. Brahms and Liszt) couldn’t tell the difference between a folk song and a popular song.

To close this subject for now, we can only point out that the use of a folk song by a composer doesn’t make it better or worse. It simply transforms it into another form of art, where new criteria apply. A teacher may very well decide to teach a folk song, a composition stemming from a folk song or both.

4. Art of Intrinsic Value…

Among the pictures decorating the “Bartók” room at the Greek Kodály Conservatory and Institute there is a Hungarian engraving named “Only from clear springs” [Tavaszi, Noemi: ‘Csak tiszta forrásbol’ linoleum]. It is the last phrase of Bartók’s “Cantata Profana”. I have discussed many times the possible interpretations of this phrase with my students. We decided that it is the poetic equivalent of the phrase that is the motto of this lecture:“Only art of intrinsic value is suitable for children”.

Whenever I quote this phrase, there is an immediate reaction from the public. As a genuine ‘agent provocateur,’ I expect this reaction. The words “only” and “intrinsic” (chosen by the translator of the Selected Writings) usually alert the audience. Very often the phrase is condemned as “nationalistic” or “politically incorrect.” once I was even called “music ayatollah!”

The word “intrinsic” was unknown to me. I looked it up in a dictionary and found plenty of possible synonyms. I kept three of them for you: Inherent, indispensable, essential. In fact Kodály really used a Hungarian word meaning “of high artistic” value. Each one of them could be used instead of “intrinsic” but the effect would be similar. The real question is: Who defines what is “art of intrinsic value”?

Kodály refers quite often to the notion of good and bad music. “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad… Why could we not provide the best to someone who has no recognition of either good or bad yet? … That is why teaching in the schools and indeed already in the kindergartens should be of high quality from the start.” This notion is derived directly from Plato’s “Republic” where the Greek philosopher speaks about the revolutionary power of music. He points out that a change in the rules of music may even cause change in the laws of the state! Plato is taking over the Pythagorean idea of “ethos” in music, an idea still predominant in Greek traditional music until today. It is obvious that Kodály refers to this “ethos” when he says “Good music certainly has a general character forming influence as it radiates responsibility and moral solemnity. Bad music lacks in all these. Its destructive effect can go as far as to undermine the faith and standards in moral law.

So what is good music? Should we vote? Should we follow the “Top Ten” of the month or the results of “Grammy” or the “MTV” awards? Should we follow the “market,” which is considered nowadays to be the epitome of democracy?

I see Kodály with an ironic smile on his face. Let us read his last quotation the other way around: “Good music is the music that has a general character forming influence as it radiates responsibility and moral solemnity”. Yes, “good music” is a matter of personal choice, but there can be no real choice without knowledge. I mentioned that at the beginning of this lecture; I repeat it now. As far as it concerns education, the choice belongs to the teacher. The teacher has the legal right to chose as he is appointed for that reason by the state, the director or the parent. The teacher has the moral right and responsibility to chose because that is what he is trained to do.

5. The Choice of Literature…

Where is the teacher going to look for the quality material that he needs? (1) In the traditional (folk and art) music of the region and the country, of the neighbouring countries, of the whole world. (2) In the masterpieces of Art music of all the countries and eras.

It is advisable to avoid “exercises” that don’t have an obvious artistic value, as, in art education, whatever lacks artistic value lacks educational value as well.

It is also advisable to avoid “Pop Hits”. Students obviously have enough of it during the day so there is no reason to spend some of their precious 45 minutes in repeating something they already know so well! This music occupies the rest of the world. Let us keep our little classroom free. We don’t have to “sanctify” this kind of music by bringing it into the classroom.

The choice of music literature is not an easy thing in the era of music abundance. one has first to formulate a coherent philosophy of his own about what music is “good enough” for the children, one has to acquire a good knowledge of the general and special literature, in order to be able to recognize and pick the very best of those that are appropriate for a specific class or lesson at a certain moment by applying esthetic, scientific and pedagogic criteria.

“In the overwhelming chaos of music produced today only a true master can find his bearings. It is a hundred times more difficult to acquire sureness of taste today than it was a hundred years ago. Often the genuine can scarcely be distinguished from the counterfeit. But a good musician knows what good music is. He is guided by his familiarity with literature, his theoretical and practical knowledge and his educated taste, all acquired over the course of many years.”

It is time to finish this lecture. In the future, before you make a decision about any teaching material, please remember to meditate for a second upon the truths that: (1) Music is of universal value. (2) It is still good to use folk music and it is advisable to begin with folk music of your own country. (3) The choice is yours, provided you do not forget your moral duty to ensure quality.

I would like to thank, the Organizing Committee and the Board of the British Kodály Academy for their invitation, Dr. Floresca Karanasou and Dr. Paul Lalor for their inspiring comments, practical assistance and friendship, Dr. Jerry-L. Jaccard for editing this paper and my wife Kati for being my best interactive audience.

I should acknowledge that most of the Quotations of Zoltán Kodály that I have used can be found in the valuable I.K.S. collection “Music should belong to everybody,” compiled by my former teacher Prof. Ildiko Herboly-Kocsár and that a lot of the newer translations are done by our I.K.S. Executive Director Mrs. Márta Vandulek.

Michalis Patseas: Director of the Greek Kodály Conservatory and Institute. Conductor of its choirs and orchestral ensembles. Vice-President of the Greek Kodály Society and Secretary-Treasurer of the International Kodály Society. Valentinos Patrikidis was his first music teacher. He studied theory of music, composition, Byzantine church music, singing, choir and orchestra conducting at the National Conservatory of Athens, the Vienna University of Music and the Zoltán Kodály Pedagogical Institute of Music in Hungary. He graduated from the latter with an Advanced Diploma of Post Graduate studies in Music Pedagogy and Choir Conducting with Peter Erdei as his professor. He is also a graduate of the Department of Law and a PHD candidate of the Music Department of the Athens University. He has taken part in 20 musicology and music pedagogy congresses (in Greece, Italy, France, Denmark, Hungary, Finland and USA) mainly as an invited lecturer (15 lectures). He teaches conducting, music pedagogy and singing at the GKCI and at the International Seminars of the Kodály Institute in Kecskemét. He has also taught at institutions of higher education in Cyprus, and at the Music Department of the Athens University. He conducts choirs and orchestral ensembles. His choirs have appeared at the Megaron – The Athens Concert Hall (43 times) at the Herodes Atticus Odeon, at the Ancient Theatre of Epidauros, at the Olympic Zeus Temple and elsewhere. He was the first conductor of the Greek Radio Children’s Choir (1995-1999). The Hungarian Ministry of Culture has awarded him the Pro Cultura Hungarica award and the Hungarian President has decorated him with the “Officer’s Cross of the Order of Honour of the Hungarian Republic” (2003).