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Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (orchestral bells, snare drum, triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 30, 1944, Antal Dorati conducting
Of the research that Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály began to make during the first decade of this century, Bartók wrote, in 1922: "We found in the most ancient Hungarian peasant music what at last proved to be suitable material for forming the basis of a higher Hungarian art music." And, six years later, in an article for the American periodical Pro Musica: "I am convinced that each of our Hungarian folk melodies is a…paragon of artistry of the highest order. In many ways, I regard these folk songs just as great works of art as…a fugue by Bach or a sonata by Mozart... we may learn from this music an unparalleled terseness of expression... exactly what we were craving after the diffuse loquacity of the Romantic period." And finally, in the same article, "If I were asked to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály. His work proves his faith in the Hungarian spirit… His composing activity is rooted only in Hungarian soil."
Bartók's faith eventually flickered and he left Hungary forever on the eve of World War II. Kodály remained, maintaining his position as an artistic and moral leader - composer, folklorist, educator - through the years of Fascist and Communist dictatorships, both of which he despised.
It is hardly an oversimplification to say that Kodály was a traditionalist - in the best sense of the term. While both had at the core of their musical creativity the Hungarian folk music their German-trained teachers considered good for nothing more than dashes of color, as in the "Gypsy" finale of Brahms' G-minor Piano Quartet, Bartók took what he found there and merged it into a complex, 20th-century musical idiom entirely his own. Kodály, on the other hand, allowed the folk element to take center stage, to be his music: e.g., his most celebrated stage work, Háry Janós - a folk play with music, lots of music - of whose 20 musical numbers 16 are arrangements of Hungarian folk songs.
On a smaller scale, the beguiling Dances of Galánta are likewise arrangements of existing material, music of a sort that the composer may first have encountered as a child in the Hungarian town of Galánta (today in Slovakia), on the rail line - his father, Frigyes, was the Galánta station-master - from Budapest to Vienna. One is tempted to say that he simply took the folk music and put it into fancy concert-hall dress. But this would be to minimize his genius as an orchestrator.
In 1933, when commissioned to create a work for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, Kodály took these specific melodies from a volume of Hungarian dances published in Vienna a century earlier. Thus, the source material is not to be confused with music collected by Kodály and Bartók on their expeditions into the countryside.
Kodály's work is an expanded verbunkos (from the German werben, to recruit), the verbunkos being in 18th- and 19th-century Hungary a dance-show put on by the recruiting sergeant and his hussars for the potential enlistees, the message being that the soldier's life is endless fun.
The verbunkos traditionally consists of two sections, the lassú (literally, "slow") and the friss ("fresh"). The structure of Kodály's Dances of Galánta consists of a three-part lassú (the orchestral introduction, the clarinet's cadenza, and the subsequent luscious andante maestoso section) followed by a friss that begins allegro moderato and then erupts into four different fast dances, separated by brief references to the andante maestoso.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.