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Composed: 1933

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

About this Piece

It is hardly an oversimplification to say that Kodály was a traditionalist – in the best sense of the term. Kodály allowed Hungarian folk elements 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 earlier 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 luscious subsequent 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