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Dances of Galánta

Warm and colorful, Dances of Galánta is Zoltán Kodály’s best-known orchestral work. Like his friend and compatriot Bartók, he infused his music with Central European folk music elements.

Zoltán Kodály was born at Kecskemét, Hungary, on December 16, 1882, and died in Budapest on March 6, 1967. He composed Dances of Galánta (Galántai Tácok) in 1933, dedicating it to the Budapest Philharmonic Society on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, and conducting the first performance on October 23 that year with that orchestra.

Dances Of Galánta is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, small drum, triangle, bells, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Dances of Galánta is about 16 minutes long.

Like his friend and compatriot Béla Bartók, Zoltán 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 last century were so vocally oriented, and 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 20th-century composer, and many of these were intended for school use. Indeed, this aspect of his work made Kodály one of the great music educators of all time. 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 of Dances of Galanta, 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 18th-century dances that Kodály has chosen are known as verbunkos music, the “recruiting dances” (from the German word “Werbung,” “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, and 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. 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

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The first Boston Symphony performance of Dances of Galánta was on December 13, 1955, in Providence, led by Arthur Fiedler, followed by four subscription performances in Boston. Fiedler had already led performances of the piece with the Boston Pops on three occasions; the first was in May 1938.