Pál Kadosa 

He learnt the piano with Székely and composition with Kodaly. He was not only a renowned interpreter of Bartók’s music but also a contemporary music champion of his time. He taught his art to many a musician: well known pianists, such as Zoltan Kocsis and András Schiff, as well as numerous Hungarian composers (Ligeti and Kurtag to name only two). He was a leading figure of the Hungarian musical life (Kossuth prize in 1950) and was made honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London. He composed nine symphonies, several concertos, a large amount of chamber music. Who can that man be?

His name’s Pál Kadosa (1903-1983). Almost forgotten today in Europe and abroad, this key figure of 20th century’s music deserves more attention. His importance  in the contemporary repertoire should definitely be reinstated. 

He was largely influenced by Bartók and by the neoclassical style in vogue at the beginning of the century. However, he fused those influences, in a most “anti-intellectual” way with the popular Hungarian moods. Kadosa thought popular music was an active engine shaping and giving force to the compositional activity. It gave birth to a form of spontaneity in the music, as can be heard in his little aphorisms for piano but also in his larger musical structures which subtly blend a hard linear counterpoint with meditative moments, sudden fits of anger or desperate gestures.

Kadosa’s music is much more a product of a crisis than a celebration of reality. The composer’s quest for a true new music with Hungarian accents led him to experiment with all the cultural trends of his time : from neoclassicism to free twelve-tones technique, from “barbarism” to late expressionism, from “educational works” for young pianists to fine large-scale compositions for highly professional musicians. Music critics have identified five periods in Kadosa’s creative life: 

     ·mid 1920s - early 1930s : youth compositions, beginning of public concerts of his music in Hungary and abroad (Venice Biennale in 1934, Strasbourg and Berlin)

     ·early 1930s - early 1940s : composition of important works (Partita for orchestra [1943], First Symphony [1941-42], Concertino for piano [1938], 2nd violin concerto [1940]), worldwide acclaim, forced war interruption

     ·1945 – 1949 : post-war recovery, important positions in the Hungarian musical life (chair of piano teacher at the Budapest Academy, vice-president of the Hungarian Arts Council)

     ·1950 - mid 1950s : intense participation in the Hungarian musical life (cantatas, more accessible large-scale works, Kossuth prize [1950])

     ·mid 1950s – death : intense didactic life (piano and composition), return to his complex compositional writing of the beginning

To some, this subdivision of Kadosa’s life can be highly questionable. However, the composer’s lifeline is undoubtedly related to the history of Hungary and the whole of Eastern Europe. A promising young pianist and composer gains an international reputation in the 1930s and is then banned by the Nazis. After the war, he comes back to his home country, recovers a new popularity with “engaged” works and ends his life transmitting his enormous knowledge to numerous pupils. Kadosa is the classic case of a composer born “between” other better known generations of composers (such as Günter Bialas in Germany or Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, with due distinction, of course). His importance lies not only in his historical role in Hungarian musical life but also for the high level of output he produced. He was the ideal bridge from Liszt - Bartók to Ligeti – Kurtag. A role that cannot and must not be forgotten.

The piano sonatas

Kadosa wrote only four piano sonatas. They span over a very short period of time (1926-1930) with the exception for the fourth sonata written in 1959-1960. Those pieces are heavily influenced by Bartók and Hindemith, with a marked percussive writing and a preference for linear dissonant counterpoint. Kadosa’ personal touch is heard through the singular use of popular modes, a peculiar treatment of piano modern technique, an inventive harmonic language on the edge of tonality. In terms of piano performance, Kadosa’s sonatas are a real challenge for the technique and interpretation. The writing is brilliant but exposes the pianist with huge difficulties in order to convey the composer’s ideas which are sometimes more modern than many so-called contemporary music of today.

The first sonata was written in 1926 by a 23 years old Kadosa. He already had had the opportunity to hear his music performed in Budapest in 1923 and in Berlin in 1925. With this op. 7, Kadosa reached a very high level in his compositional output. The first two movements are bound together by a simple but powerful theme clearly introduced at the beginning of the piece. The structure of the first movement is a clear sonata form, but written as to make it hard for the listener to follow the classical articulation exposition-development-recapitulation. The development begins with a mirror canon based on the very first theme whilst exploiting all the theme’s facets. The recapitulation, on the other hand, ends with an amplification of the theme. The second movement (Molto allegro) is a clear inspiration from a Bartók suite. A mysterious ostinato supports a theme that develops from a simple semitone into a seventh, growing up several octaves. As usual, a middle section in a canon form is followed by a final section in which a recapitulation is mixed with a quotation from the first movement principal theme. The piece ends in a mysterious way: far but not unresolved. The final Adagio is a wonderful meditation in an atonal mood. As the exposition comes to an end, some mocking gestures develop into an enormous amplification of the beginning theme later extinguishing itself in the very low register of the piano. 

The fourth and last sonata (op. 54) was written in 1959-1960 and shows a more narrative and less problematic writing. The four movements follow the classical subdivision with a kind of cyclic form structure. The opening piece (Allegro, ben marcato) starts by posing some thematic elements ina direct contrast with each other (chromatic melodies with octave jumps, scales of thirds, repeated chords, etc.) in a free meters environment. The whole piece is then built using these various bricks. After a climax (in 5/8), the recapitulation (flamboyant, with virtuoso elements) brings us to a mysterious ending. However the piece is concluded with a typical Kadosa signature. In this particular case he played around an unexpected finale on a c major cadenza! The following Andante sostenuto (with reminiscences of Hindemith) is a sad song (with accompaniment of empty fifths) with an agitate middle section, in which the popular mood emerges in a very intimate way. The ending section leaves no room for joy, fading out in a bitter atmosphere. The third movement (Invece [sic] di minuetto, meaning “in the place of a minuet”) is a provocative “scherzo-like” piece with tonal ambiguity and strong modal influence. The cadenced first section is balanced by a more meditative second part. The final movement is the most complex of the entire set. Articulated into some subsections, it opens with a rhapsodic page followed by an Allegro vivace full of syncopations, counterpoints and witty inventions. After a rather complex development subsection, a Grave e sostenuto repeats the theme heard in the slow movement (but with some variations, using elements taken from this movement). The return of the Allegro vivace, after a dreaming moment, ends this sonata in the same tone as that of the first movement (with a c major chord). The cycle is complete. 

The sonata No. 2 (op. 9) is a short work in which the voice of Bartók can be heard here and there. Its brevity and its use of popular accents make this sonata a tiny jewel. The first movement (written in sonata form) starts with a short and simple theme, starting from a minor second on to an ostinato (the similarities with the first sonata are quite clear). After a short chromatic crescendo developing into the theme, a climax in popular mood is reached and leads to an amplification of the same theme with powerful octaves. In the very short middle section, the theme is slightly modified and treated in a fugato style. The recapitulation follows, without any changes. The second movement is strongly tainted with sarcasm and bitter mood so typical of Kadosa’s slow pieces. It opens with a shapeless figure in the low register (marked appropriately  with the Italian word “indifferente” in the score!). The same figure is used again and strengthened  in the high register with a tricky process of elaboration. After a re-exposition of the same theme with upper trills and an intense crescendo, it is finally repeated once again in a climax of sorrow. The third “barbaro” movement is a short piece based on octave, while the simple, happy ending piece exploits popular moods in a modal attitude.

The third sonata (op. 13) is constructed upon one movement only. This stunning sonata deserves its place in today’s piano repertoire. It is absurd that such a piece is not duly ranked at a top place in the must-play list of every piano player. Like the third Prokofiev sonata, it stands up for its brevity (only six minutes), its coherence, its perfect formal balance and, most of all, its powerful and energetic sound output. The piece opens up with a thundering ostinato that switches to the low octave only to gives space to a crooked theme in syncopation. It then carries on with rhythmic elaborations, transforms itself into a block chords section leading to the first coda with repeated chords and alternate octaves, insisting mostly on the interval of seventh. This beginning section is repeated entirely (the respect for formal perfection is always present in Kadosa’s work) and connects directly to the development, which uses fragments of the first part in a fiercer way, until the slow section is reached. This “adagio” (using always a fragment of the beginning) is a short mirror canon starting in the low register and growing up in a tremendous crescendo towards the restart of the ostinato and an amplification of the recapitulation. The second coda (transposed, like any sonata movement) is exactly the same as the first one, only with a more powerful ending. But it is a deceiving ending : the beginning riff is repeated only to bring back its cruel and mocking smirk. The quasi-atonal language, the savage irregular rhythm, the percussive “barbaric” style and the depth of invention of this sonata, written in 1930, ranks Kadosa at the top of Hungarian composers of the 20th century.  

Nicola Giosmin


Nicola Giosmin is an Italian pianist, composer and researcher based in Paris.


Cover: photocredit Steve Snodgrass


30 Dicembre 2013


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