Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta
Notes by TŌN cellist Kelly Knox
A visit to Galanta will take you to a small town in southwest Slovakia. Otherwise unassuming, the town was a common railway stop between Budapest and Vienna at the end of the 19th century, and was the boyhood home of Zoltán Kodály as his father worked as the stationmaster. It was here that young Zoltán heard his first “orchestral sonority” in the form of a popular Romani folk band, which might have included violin, double bass, clarinet, piano, accordion, panflute, and/or a cimbalom, a hammered string instrument. With the rich Hungarian folk music tradition in his ear, Kodály went on to study in Budapest and Paris. He quickly made a name for himself as a composer, but also became a pioneer as an ethnographer and musical pedagogue. In 1905, in preparation for his doctoral thesis, Kodály traveled to the most remote parts of Hungary recording folk songs with a phonograph cylinder. These folk songs were not only cataloged for posterity, but became the inspiration and basis for most of his compositions.
Dances of Galánta was composed in 1933 and draws from an anthology of folk songs transcribed from Galanta that Kodály encountered in Vienna. He used his then-extensive knowledge and skill of orchestration to give these melodies and their appropriate accompaniments a chance to shine in the concert hall, and shine they do! The piece is divided in five sections with no breaks between them. The first dance begins with an introduction that hearkens a street performer calling passers-by to listen, followed by a slow and stately melody introduced by the clarinet and then elaborated on by the rest of the orchestra. The four dances that follow are more upbeat in tempo and take the listener through a variety of Hungarian landscapes; one could imagine an idyllic countryside, a street fiddler, or soldiers dancing and playing in the street to entice future recruits (a common occurrence around this time!). After alluding back to the first stately dance, the piece concludes boisterously, doing its best to have you dancing along in your seat.