Once upon a time, in the years before the First World War, two musicians, sometimes together and sometimes apart, travelled throughout Hungary collecting folksongs and dances. They were ethnomusicologists, although the word hadn’t been coined yet. The subsequent musical direction of each was profoundly affected by their youthful enthusiasms. Their names are Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály.
The Hungary of that time was much greater than today’s. The eastern part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, it included some of present day Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Poland. Some of Imperial Hungary had even been part of the Ottoman Empire. The folk music was as diverse as languages.
Bartók went on to become among the greatest composers in the tradition of Western Classical Music. Kodály is best known as the author of a landmark method for teaching music in the schools, but was also a brilliant and accomplished composer whose works are revered in Hungary.
I will share with you two orchestral works which demonstrate the extent to which their travels, collections and studies influenced their music.
Bartok’s Dance Suite dates from 1923, the middle of his composing career. He has taken material which he collected and transformed for his own purposes. There is always a certain edginess, rawness perhaps, to Bartók’s music and there is plenty of each in evidence here. The tempo and mood of the piece shifts dramatically. Dances are presented, abandoned while contrasting music is played, and then return. Although it isn’t obvious, I have it on good authority that it is also very difficult for the orchestra and conductor. The work owes very little to the Late Romantic Music in which the composer was schooled. It is very much a work of the Twentieth Century.
Dances from Galanta is another orchestral tour de force based upon Eastern European folk tunes, but how different! While clearly a Twentieth Century work, there are echos Brahms and Lizst and Johann Strauss, of Hungarian Rhapsodies and and the Fledermaus Csardas. Kodály, like his colleague, chose and modified dances that fit his musical purpose. The form is similar to Bartók’s Dance Suite but the effect entirely different.
Each work is about 16 minutes in length. If you can listen to them together, I encourage you to do that. If you can’t spare that much time, listening to a few minutes of each will still make my point.