ZOLTÁN KODÁLY: Dances of Galánta

Zoltán Kodály was born at Kecskemét, Hungary, on December 16, 1882, and died in Budapest on March 6, 1967. He composed the Galántai Tácok, or Dances of Galánta in 1933, dedicating them to the Budapest Philharmonic Society on the occasion of its 80th anniversary and conducting the first performance with that orchestra on October 23 that year. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, small drum, triangle, glockenspiel, and strings.

Like his friend and compatriot Béla Bartók, Kodály devoted much of his energy to the study of Hungarian folk song, and this revealed itself throughout his creative endeavors. Few composers of the twentieth century were so vocally oriented; even his purely instrumental works are imbued with the character of song, the song of the people. Late in his life, Kodály wrote, “Our age of mechanization leads along a road ending with man himself as a machine; only the spirit of singing can save him from this fate.” To project this spirit, Kodály wrote songs and choral works in greater number than perhaps any other twentieth-century composer, and many of them were intended for school use. Indeed, Kodály was one of the great music educators of all time, and the Kodály system is still at the core of Hungary’s strong and almost universal program of music education. But the same spirit found its way into his purely orchestral music, most of which was written in the decade and a half between 1925 and 1940.

Kodály inserted the following statement in the score, by way of explanation:

Galánta is a small Hungarian market town known to the travelers from Vienna to Budapest, where the composer passed seven years of his childhood. There existed at that time a famous gypsy band which has since disappeared. Their music was the first “orchestral sonority” which came to the ear of the child. The forebears of these gypsies were already known more than a hundred years ago. Around the year 1800 some books of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna, one of which contained music “after several gypsies from Galántha.” They have preserved the old Hungarian traditions. In order to continue it the composer has taken his principal subjects from these old editions.

These old eighteenth-century dances that Kodály has chosen are known as verbunkos music, the “recruiting dances” (from the German word Werbung, meaning recruiting) from the method of enlisting recruits during that century’s imperial wars. The dance was performed by a group of hussars led by their sergeant; it consisted of slow figures alternating with lively ones. The impressive display was apparently designed to arouse enthusiasm among the spectators and encourage some of them to join up to share in the fun. (No doubt a certain amount of alcoholic intake encouraged them as well.) The music that accompanied these events was played by gypsy bands, who often performed breathtakingly elaborate improvisations over the basically simple tunes.

Kodály’s piece is an evocation of that old Hungarian tradition. Having selected his tunes, he arranged them in a rondo-like pattern, with a central Andante maestoso recurring twice in the course of the piece. The brilliant orchestration provides a modern orchestral treatment of the colorful old gypsy bands, and has in no small way contributed to the work’s great popularity.

Indeed, of Kodály’s purely orchestral works, the Galánta dances remain by far the most popular. —© Steven Ledbetter