Dances of Galanta
Zoltán Kodály, Dances of Galanta
Zoltán Kodály (16 December 1882 - 6 March 1967) was a Hungarian composer. He spent much of his childhood in the magnificent Medieval city of Galanta, which was largely destroyed in World War II. For nine centuries, Galanta was part of the Kingdom of Hungary; but in 1918, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was awarded to the new Czechoslovakia (and after the breakup of that country, Galanta is now part of Slovakia). The point of this brief discussion of history is that Gypsies, who had found refuge in Hungary in great numbers, lived in Galanta. The themes Kodály uses in Dances of Galanta come from a book of Gypsy music collected in Galanta and printed in Vienna in 1800.
The opening notes of Dances of Galanta posses dignity and power—horns call out across the countryside, perhaps from castle walls, bidding people to a great festival in the city. Galanta is thronged, and young and old alike dance through the gates. Dancers weave their way up and down city streets and thrill in marketplaces and public squares. Love is found or renewed. No need for fireworks here—not with these dances!
I have chosen Neeme Järvi conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as my recommended recording of this piece. It is simply the best. My experience today with Dances of Galanta demonstrates how important it is to seek out the finest recordings. I listened to the first of these dances in seven different recordings, by seven different orchestras and conductors. All of them but the Chicago shared one thing in common: boring beginnings. Listening to them, I was left wondering when the piece might get interesting—but then comes Järvi and the Chicago: and from the first notes, this piece is arresting, impossible to turn away from. Neeme Järvi and the Chicgo Symphony Orchestra deliver a riveting performance of Dances of Galanta.
Here is a link to this recording on Amazon.com:
Encountering Dances of Galanta has been, for me, thrilling—before today, I had never heard them. They are evidence of wonders that yet await in classical music.
A calendar I subscribe to of birthdays of classical composers incorrectly identified Kodály as being born today—which is why I went looking for his music; it turns out he was born in December. I will revisit his music then.
While searching for the best recording, I came across an interesting reconfiguring of Dances of Galanta—performed by the United States Army band. As you might guess, the horns in the U.S. Army Band are electrifying, and the winds make you (almost) not miss the strings. I very much enjoyed listening to this version. It is spirited and exciting. Here is a link to it on Amazon.com:
The image above, "With Timbrels and with Dances," is of the Cladoceri, one of the named structures in a Mandelbrot fractal. I created this image on my computer in the fall of 2006. The title is from Exodus 15:20 (KJV): "And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances."