KODÁLY:  Galántai Tánkoc (Dances of Galánta)

Zoltán Kodály was born December 16, 1882, in Kecskemét, Hungary, and died March 6, 1967, in Budapest. He composed his Dances of Galánta in 1933 and dedicated the work to the Budapest Philharmonic Society on its eightieth birthday. It was premiered October 23, 1933, in Budapest, with Ernst von Dohnányi conducting the Budapest Philharmonic Society. Ferenc Fricsay conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances in November 1953. The most recent performances were given under the direction of Nicola Luisotti in March 2009. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, tambourine, triangle, bells, and strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

“If I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály. His work proves his faith in the Hungarian spirit. The obvious explanation is that all Kodály’s composing activity is rooted only in Hungarian soil, but the deep inner reason is his unshakable faith and trust in the constructive power and future of his people.” So wrote Béla Bartók, whose opinion holds considerable authority.

Zoltán Kodály achieved eminence as a composer, ethnomusicologist, and educator, and all of these strands proved interrelated through most of his career. As the son of a frequently transferred stationmaster for the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Railroads, Kodály spent his early years in a succession of small Hungarian towns (some of which would later be reassigned to what was then known as Czechoslovakia). He expressed delight in the Magyar folk music that surrounded him, and simultaneously developed an interest in mainstream European chamber music. His parents were enthusiastic musical amateurs, and Kodály learned piano, violin, viola, and cello well enough to perform creditably on each--not bad preparation for a composer in the making. In the course of studies at the Budapest Academy of Music he grew increasingly fascinated by the traditional music of his native country. He received diplomas in composition (in 1904) and in teaching (in 1905), and in 1906 he was awarded a doctorate in musicology, culminating in his dissertation, Strophic Structure in the Hungarian Folk Song.

The three disciplines of composition, teaching, and musicology—often uneasy counterparts among the musical professions—coexisted and reinforced one another in what would become Kodály’s triple legacy. He joined with his great compatriot and lifelong friend Bartók in organizing trips around the countryside to collect folk songs. As with Bartók, the musical material of these folk pieces inspired the language of Kodály’s original compositions. After polishing his compositional skills with the help of a post-graduate grant in Paris (where he studied with organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor, made the acquaintance of Debussy, and generally widened his awareness of the latest compositional trends), Kodály returned to Budapest. Reestablished in his native country, he taught at his alma mater, wrote music criticism for newspapers and magazines, edited and published folk-song collections, and--of course--continued to compose.

The best known of Kodály’s works (at least outside of Hungary) are his orchestral scores, among them such shimmering displays of melody and color as the evocative Dances of Galánta. The immediate roots of this work might be traced to 1927, when Kodály wrote a piano suite called Dances of Marosszék, celebrating a section of Transylvania he had visited while growing up. He orchestrated that work in 1930 and seems to have viewed Dances of Galánta as a sort of sequel. He provided the following comment about the piece, which he phrased rather curiously in the third person: “Galánta is a small Hungarian market town known to travelers between Vienna and Budapest. The composer passed seven years of his childhood there. At that time there existed a famous gypsy band that has since disappeared. This was the first ‘orchestral’ sonority that came to the ears of the child. The forebears of these gypsies were already known more than a hundred years ago. About 1800 some books of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna, one of which contained music ‘after several Gypsies from Galánta.’ They have preserved the old traditions. In order to keep it alive, the composer has taken his principal themes from these old publications.”

In the course of the five movements, the listener is treated to various manifestations of the traditional Hungarian verbunkos style, in which slow figures alternate with fast ones and swagger gives way to irresistible foot-stamping. The clarinet is given a particularly prominent part, reflecting the role of the single-reed tárogató in Hungarian folk music. This work, however, is no mere folk-song recital; instead, everything is filtered through the composer’s colorful brand of brilliantly orchestrated modernism.

James M. Keller

An earlier version of this note appeared in the programs of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin R.I.A.S. Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips)  |  Adam Fischer conducting the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra (Nimbus)

Reading: Zoltán Kodály, A Hungarian Musician, by Percy M. Young (Greenwood Press)  |  Zoltán Kodály: His Life and Work, by László Eösze (Collet’s)  |  Zoltán Kodály: His Life in Pictures and Documents,by László Eösze (Corvina Kiadó)  |  The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály (Boosey & Hawkes)