Tone Poem Tuesday

Here is everything I know about Zoltan Kodaly: He was a Hungarian composer who lived from 1882 to 1967, and the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind cites Kodaly as the inventor of the hand-signal method used in the film to accompany the musical tones with which humans begin communicating with the aliens.

That’s it.

I even did a search on this blog, because I’ve been known to feature an obscure (or lesser well-known) composer once, completely forget about them for years, and then feature them again with a “I’ve never heard of this person!” blurb. I can find zero mentions of Zoltan Kodaly in all of my blogging. I’m pretty sure that I used to conflate Kodaly with Khachaturian, because it’s not as if I have any expertise on Eastern European composers who start with K. (That could probably be a Jeopardy! category for the Tournament of Champions, eh? “This Russian composer of two symphonies might have been a big name if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis at 34.” “Who is Kalinnikov?” “Correct! Pick again!”)

So, what about Kodaly?

In a way he seems to have been a kindred spirit of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, in the fact that he toured the rural outlying areas of his homeland to record (on actual wax cylinders) folk songs and melodies, which he would later use as inspiration for his own compositions. Bela Bartok was another contemporary of his, and apparently the two men were friends who shared a passion for the folk music of that region.

Kodaly was also deeply invested in music education, and he left behind a significant body of work that, taken together, has come to be known as “the Kodaly method”. It is in this method that we find the use of hand signals to stand in for musical tones, with the specific hand signals having been taken from earlier work by an English musician and teacher named John Curwen.

I feel like I’m writing a research paper here: “Take a composer’s name out of the hat and write five pages on them by Tuesday.” But Kodaly is a pretty important name in twentieth century classical music, and yet I know so very little about him! This is always interesting to me: the gaps that exist in my knowledge, and why.

Anyhow, this piece is a collection of what Kodaly called “Gypsy dances”. I assume the Gypsies were Romani people (the word “gypsy” had not been exposed as a slur back then), and the work is a presentation of a number of their themes. In this way the work is most reminiscent of one of my favorite works of all time, Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. For all my admiration of the various musical forms at play in classical music–sonata-allegro, rondo, chaconne, passacaglia–there really is something to be said for the good old collection of tunes.

This piece, called Dances of Galanta, is just that: a collection of dancelike tunes, each one with touching rustic lyricism and rhythm. (Galanta is a small town, population around 15000, in Slovakia.) Like many such works, the entire orchestra is featured throughout, but the clarinet gets special focus, apparently standing in for an ethnic reed instrument that you wouldn’t find in the standard complement of a modern symphony orchestra. Dances of Galanta is an interesting piece from a voice I may well have never actually heard before. Kodaly sounds like an interesting voice, though.

Here is Dances of Galanta by Zoltan Kodaly.

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