Psalmus Hungaricus (Kodály)

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Psalmus Hungaricus, Op. 13, is a choral work for tenor, chorus and orchestra by Zoltán Kodály, composed in 1923. The Psalmus was commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest, and Óbuda for a gala performance on 19 November 1923 along with the Dance Suite by Béla Bartók, and the Festival Overture by Ernő Dohnányi, who conducted the concert. The work's first performance outside Hungary took place under Volkmar Andreae in Zurich on 18 June 1926. This marked a turning-point in the international recognition of Kodály as a composer, beyond his renown as an ethnomusicologist and music educator.


The text is based on the gloss of Psalm 55, "Give ear to my prayer, oh God," by sixteenth century poet, preacher, and translator Mihály Vég. Uncommonly, Kodály chose a sacred text to mark a secular occasion; the libretto's passages of despair and call to God provide opportunities for the composer to address Hungary's tragic past and disastrous post-Trianon Treaty predicament, when it lost over 70% of its national territory. The music reflects the nation's crisis during and after World War I (the dissolution of Greater Hungary), and the text draws a parallel between the sorrows of King David and the suffering of the Magyars in Ottoman Hungary. Thus, the Psalmus Hungaricus encompasses two and a half millennia of political distress.[1]


At the beginning of the first movement, a terse orchestral prelude yields quickly to a brief subdued choral entry. The solo tenor follows closely with the rhapsodic aria, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove." After the first tenor solo section, the chorus responds with a brief, gentle passage, but the tenor reacts vehemently, indicting those sinners who plot the downfall of innocents. This provokes a wordless female choral lamentation, and their cries joined by the tenor's part propel the work to the climactic choral assertion that "God shall hear, and afflict them." A dramatic monologue sung by the tenor ensues, continuing nearly to the movement’s finale, when the chorus erupts.

The second movement follows attacca without pause, in a contrasting pensive mood, featuring extended solos for clarinet and violin, over a shimmering undercurrent of harp and pizzicato strings. The tenor returns with a lyrical, yearning aria, "But reassure my heart," which combines fervor and tenderness.

The final movement primarily features the entire chorus, alternating sounds of martial bombast with words of defiance. The work ends with a hushed prayer.

Although Kodály never literally quotes Hungarian folk songs in Psalmus, he integrates folklike pentatonic motifs with plagal cadences that combine to make this music an intense national experience for generations of Hungarians.[2] One of Kodály's genuine masterworks, Psalmus Hungaricus has rarely been performed or recorded outside of Hungary.



Additional reading[edit]

  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne, 1996 [1]
  • Jonathan D. Green, A conductor's guide to choral-orchestral works, twentieth century, part II, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, p. 86.
  • Review of recording [2]