The Kennedy Center

Dances of Galánta

About the Work

Zoltan Kodaly Composer: Zoltan Kodaly
© Peter Laki

Zoltán Kodály was born in Kecskemét, Hungary, on December 16, 1882, and died in Budapest on March 6, 1967.  He wrote his Galántai táncok (Dances of Galánta) for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, which first presented it on October 23, 1933, under the direction of Ernst von Dohnányi.

This work runs about 15 minutes in performance.  Kodály scored it for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (side drum, triangle, glockenspiel), and strings.

Zoltán Kodály made it his life's work to study the folk music of his native Hungary and to write original compositions inspired by the folk tradition.  Yet the Dances of Galánta are more than arrangements of folk dances heard during a field trip.  They held deep personal meaning for the composer, for the town of Galánta (in Northern Hungary, now Slovakia) was the place where he had grown up, having moved there as a toddler with his family.

In the preface to the printed score, Kodály wrote: 

The author spent the most beautiful seven years of his childhood in Galánta.  The town band, led by the fiddler Mihók, was famous.  But it must have been even more famous a hundred years earlier.  Several volumes of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna around the year 1800.  One of them lists its source this way: "from several Gypsies in Galánta."... May this modest composition serve to continue the old tradition.

During his research, Kodály found extensive evidence to show that the fame of those Gypsy musicians had indeed spread far beyond the boundaries of their hometown.

As a child in Galánta, Kodály not only had ample occasion to hear Mihók's band; he also learned many folksongs, sung to him by servants and schoolmates.  (On another occasion in the 1930s, he would recall the voices of his "bare-footed companions from the Galánta public school.")  At the same time, Kodály was introduced to Western classical music while in Galánta.  He took up the cello and, as his parents loved chamber music, he was soon able to participate in the musical evenings at home.

Forty-odd years after the initial encounter with the Galánta dances, Kodály returned to them as a mature composer and a leading scholar of Hungarian musical traditions.  He took the melodies from the early 19th-century Viennese editions mentioned in the preface; these editions had just been rediscovered by a musicologist named Ervin Major.  Yet Kodály didn't have to rely solely on the printed notes; he certainly had the sound of the old town band still in his ears when he scored the music.

The style of these dances is known as verbunkos, from the German Werbung (recruitment).  The Austrian army recruiters used to travel around the countryside with dancers and musicians in tow, whose performances were meant to entice young men to sign up.  The verbunkos became the dominant Hungarian instrumental tradition of the 19th century.

Kodály gave the various verbunkos melodies some exquisite musical coloring and arranged them in a masterful sequence with alternating moods and tempos.  The pensive introduction anticipates the stately principal melody, played by the solo clarinet.  Later on, this melody will return several times as a rondo theme.  Two intervening episodes (one played by the flute, the other by the oboe) are faster in tempo and lighter in character.  In the second half of the composition, the rondo form is cast aside and we hear a string of dance tunes that (with the exception of one slower theme) gradually get faster and faster.  The climactic ending is delayed for a moment by the return of part of the opening melody, with a short clarinet cadenza added.  The entire second half of the piece is dominated by a characteristic syncopated figure (short-long-short) which provides an ending which is as striking as it is simple.