Inspired As a Child by a Gypsy Band

The colour of tradition. © Charles Thibo

In 1933 Zoltan Kodaly wrote a symphonic poem called “The Dances of Galanta”. Galanta is a small town in what is today Slovakia. It used to be part of Hungary, and Kodaly spent several years here when he was a young. A well-known gypsy band stimulated the boy’s interest in music and gave him a first idea of harmony and melody. “The Dances of Galanta”, written to mark the 80th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Budapest, take up material form 18th-century verbunkos dances, and became Kodaly’s most popular work.

When I first listened to this piece two other composers came to my mind: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky. The exotic touch, the use of folk music elements, so different from the Vienna tradition that dominated music until the dawn of the 20th century, was the main reason. “Kodaly was convinced that folksong was important not just as a monument of the past but also as a foundation for the future. This view fired him in organizing and popularizing activities aimed at gaining a general recognition for folk music and at creating a homogeneous musical culture”, Oxford Music Online says.

His colleague Bela Bartok had written in 1927 that Kodaly was “a great master of form and possesses a striking individuality; he works in a concentrated fashion and despises any sensation, false brilliance, any extraneous effect.” His ambition was to develop a truly Hungarian music style as Bedrich Smetana did in Prague. He reached back to the rich music heritage of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – folk and classic – and set out to develop not only an individual musical language. Together with Bartok he would be the pioneer of a Hungarian School.

Curiously one of the composers that marked Kodaly most was Claude Debussy. Their music is very different. But perhaps Kodaly was emboldened to try new ways when he analyzed Debussy’s avant-garde music. Kodaly uses “impressionistic” touches in the “Dances of Galanta”, but they are almost invisible. He was aware of other developments in classical music, Arnold Schönberg’s works for instance, but he remained a traditionalist in a way.

I would like to quote again Bartok in this context who wrote in 1921 that Kodaly’s works are characterized by “by rich melodic invention, a perfect sense of form, a certain predilection for melancholy and uncertainty […] he strives for inner contemplation. His music is not of the kind described nowadays as modern. It has nothing to do with the new atonal, bitonal and polytonal music – everything in it is based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is nevertheless new […] and demonstrates thereby that the tonal principle has not lost its raison d’être as yet.”

The symphonic poem “Dances of Galanta” has been recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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