Dances of Galanta

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        Although many of his works are popular concert pieces in this country, perhaps the greatest knowledge of Kodály in the USA is through the use of his music education materials in our public schools, where he is highly influential.   Born in what was the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, he spent his childhood in Galanta, a small town near Bratislava, in present-day Slovakia.  Educated in Budapest, he built a distinguished career as ethnomusicologist, composer, and educator.  Around 1905 he began his field trips to record on wax cylinders the folk songs of the Slavic world, and later wrote a PhD dissertation on the subject.   Concomitantly, he began his career as composer; in addition to Hungarian folk elements, his encounter with the music of Debussy on a trip to Paris was a shaping influence on his musical style.  He met a young Bela Bartók early on, and they became life-long friends and enthusiastic mutual supporters.   Among his illustrious students one can name Eugene Ormandy and Antal Doráti. Some of Kodály’s more significant works include the opera, Háry János, the Missa Brevis and his Psalmus hungaricus.

        Dances of Galanta was composed in 1933, and of course, reflects the music of his boyhood home in Slovakia.   By the time of its composition, Kodály was the world’s leading expert on this musical culture, and the work is an authentic and sympathetic treatment of it.  Strictly speaking, Dances of Galanta is not a suite of dances, but rather, is really a tone poem—a single movement work cast in episodes.   It was commissioned for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society.  Much of the musical material in the work is based upon eighteenth-century Hungarian tunes called verbunkos.   Literally, these are “recruiting” songs used by the Austro-Hungarian army to entice young villagers into enlisting.   About a dozen members of the hussars (Hungarian light cavalry) led by a sergeant would literally dance, accompanied by Gypsy musicians, at first slowly and then increasingly faster.  Finally, the music would drive to a frenetic conclusion, replete with leaps and much clicking of spurs—a sure fire enticement to lead young men into military service.   While not very convincing today as elements of national policy, these verbunkos are the central musical element of Dances of Galanta.  It doesn’t hurt to close your eyes and envision the robust ceremony behind the music.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan