Kodaly – Dances of Galánta

by Max Derrickson

“Folk music” as a genre of music seems to defy a specific definition.  Mainly, however, it’s the songs of a particular group/culture that arose organically amidst daily life, passed through the ages by oral communication, and without a known author.  Of course, dance and tales often accompanied these songs, and the whole business was coined “folklore” only in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms.

With the end of the Napoleonic Age, European countries sped headlong into the Romantic Era, along with Nationalistic approaches to each country’s unique character.  But it was a watershed moment in the early stages of Romantic music when Carl Maria van Weber wrote his “folk opera,” Der Freischutz, based on an old German folktale.  Mystical and magical and folk-like melodies made up this work, [. . .].

Beginning in the mid-19th Century, folk music and folklore were being collected throughout Europe, and important volumes of those collections found their way into the hands of many a composer.  This, in no small way, was important to the Nationalistic identities that so many countries sought to reclaim – it was the music and stories of the “people,” or as the Germans coined it so nicely, the “Volk.”  The zenith of this interest         [. . .] Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly were at the European forefront of this in the late 19th Century and early 20th, carrying early recording equipment into [. . .].

And when, by the turn of the 20th Century, the excesses of the Romantic Era of music were being left behind for a new way of expression, many composers found the directness and purity of folk music to be the answer – such as Vaughan Williams of England, Bartok and Kodaly of Hungary, and, in his own way, Stravinsky of Russia.

Zoltán Kodály
(Born in Kecskemét, Hungary in 1882; died in Budapest in 1967)

Dances of Galánta

Zoltán Kodály’s father was a railway official and led the Kodály’s through a fairly peripatetic existence.  Early in his life, young Zoltán lived in the northern region of Hungary called Galánta (now part of Slovakia), and the experience awakened in him a life-long passion for folk music.  Kodály went on to study folk music seriously, getting a degree at the Academy of Music in Budapest with a thesis paper titled “Strophic Structure in Hungarian Folk-Song.”  When he started to compose, he began by remembering the lovely folk songs [. . .] enough that in 1936 he created another such work, Dances of Galánta (commissioned for the 80th Anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society), with each of the works being based on folk song, dance and stories of Hungarian origin.

Like so many folk-based works from the hands of exceptional composers, folk songs take on a musical language that makes them [. . .]  the perfect tunes, their exquisite orchestration, and the structure and pacing with which he reimagined them.  Kodály’s philosophy was aptly captured by his fellow Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok, in an article in 1928 he published in the American periodical Pro Musica, about folk music:

“… each of our Hungarian folk melodies is a … paragon of artistry of the highest order. In many ways, I regard these folk songs … as great works … we may learn from this music an unparalleled terseness of expression… exactly what we were craving after the diffuse loquacity of the Romantic period.”

Kodály found his songs for his Dances in a venerable volume of folk music transcribed from Galánta and published in Vienna some years earlier.  [. . .] a song-type called verbunkos, which were originally songs and dances performed by the military to lure young recruits – they had two sections, lassú (meaning “slow”), followed by the friss (meaning “fresh,” and fast).  The lassú was meant to capture attention through gravitas and something like an operatic “singing to the back row,” followed by the friss which was dance and song that gained speed and excitement          [. . .] everyday songs and a standard of Hungarian gypsies.

Kodály used the basic verbunkos style and begins with a three part lassú, each of a melancholic beauty.  First the beautifully scored orchestral introduction, with solo declamations filigreed by fantastical orchestral wisps, [. . .] that Galánta, as Kodály said, “represented the best years of my life.”