Born December 16, 1882 in Kecskemét, Hungary; died March 6, 1967, in Budapest

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Zoltán Kodály is generally regarded, after Béla Bartók, as the next most important figure in twentieth-century Hungarian music.  The two first met when they were students at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and became close friends when they discovered that they shared a mutual interest in the folk music of their country.  Following their graduation, they spent the next several years together trekking throughout Hungary and the surrounding areas, where they listened to, wrote down, and even occasionally recorded on primitive wax cylinders the folk music that they heard sung and played in the villages that they visited.  Unlike Bartók, who not long afterward embarked upon an international career as a concert pianist and composer, and would eventually leave Hungary for good, Kodály remained in his homeland for the rest of his life, where he was respected as a composer and teacher.  Among his many composition students were Eugene Ormandy and Antal Dorati, both of whom who would go on to enjoy international careers as conductors.

The World War II years were particularly bitter ones for Kodály.  “All I have left are two suits and a half-wrecked apartment in Budapest,” he confided by mail to an American friend.  During the Nazi occupation of Hungary, Kodály not only adamantly refused to divorce his Jewish wife, but he also worked openly with the underground and helped countless fleeing Jews escape.  Only his immense reputation saved him from reprisals by the Gestapo.  Kodály also managed to survive the series of several political upheavals that beset Hungary after the war.  For the remainder of his life, he maintained his fierce independence and democratic ideals, and never permitted himself to be used as a political pawn by his government.  He made two brief visits to the United States: the first, in 1946, when he served as a delegate to the International Confederation of Authors’ Society; the second, in 1965, when he appeared at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire during a two-week music festival in his honor.

As might be expected, the rhythms, melodic patterns, and harmonies of Hungarian folk music exerted a strong influence on many of Kodály’s compositions.  One of the most important and frequently heard of his folk-inspired works is Dances of Galánta, which he composed during the summer of 1933 in response to a commission from the Budapest Philharmonic Society in celebration of its eightieth anniversary.  The first performance took place on October 23 of that same year in Budapest with Ernö von Dohnányi conducting the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra.

Galánta is a small market town near the Austro-Hungarian border where Kodály had spent several of his boyhood years, and it is the music of the gypsies of this region that he incorporated into Dances of Galánta.  The themes themselves, as they appear in a book published in Vienna in the early 1800’s, are rather monotonous in their rhythms and harmonies; however, Kodály transforms them into a refined dance fantasy not unlike some of the Hungarian Rhapsodies of his distinguished predecessor Franz Liszt, who also had a passionate interest in the folk music of the country of his birth.  Like Kodály’s earlier Dances of Marosszek of 1927, Dances of Galánta may be structurally described as a rondo consisting of five contrasting dance episodes preceded by an introduction and concluded with a lengthy coda.  The clarinet, an instrument not especially associated with Hungarian folk music, is particularly prominent throughout.  “The effectiveness of the piece,” notes the Hungarian musicologist Laszlo Eösze, “is due in no small measure to the masterful orchestration, the balance between the solo and tutti sections, and the brilliant sound.”


-Kenneth C. Viant