Zoltán Kodály: Háry János Suite


Premiering at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in 1926, Zoltán Kodály’s folk opera Háry János has remained one of his more popular large-scale works. Based on the comic epic The Veteran by János Garay, with a Hungarian libretto by Béla Paulini, Háry János showcases Kodály’s love for folk music and made a point of merging operatic and folk traditions together. In the preface to the score Kodály wrote:


“Háry is a peasant, a veteran soldier who day after day sits at the tavern spinning yarns about his heroic exploits…the stories released by his imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naivety of comic humour and pathos.

Though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a natural visionary and poet. His stories are not true and irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world. We all dream of impossible deeds of glory and grandeur, only we lack the naive courage of Háry and dare not reveal them. A deeper significance is given to the story by regarding Háry as symbolic of the Hungrarian nation, whose strivings and ambitions can fulfilled only in dreams. ”


From the music of the opera, Kodály, like many of his contemporaries and those who came before him, created an orchestral suite of some of the musical highlights. The suite includes six highlights, with the premiere of the suite taking place in March 1927 in Barcelona. 


The Music

One of the most notable things about the suite, in comparison to lots of other orchestral works being created at the time, is that it includes a cimbalom, which is a traditional Hungarian instrument that is related to the Western hammer dulcimer. The unique sound of the cimbalom adds to Kodály’s dynamic musical score. See if you can hear it!


Movement I – Kezdodik a mese (Prelude: The Fairy Tale Begins)

Opening with what is often described as an ‘orchestral sneeze’, this symbolic opening has origins in Hungarian traditions. Sneezing before telling a story indicates that what is about to be said is the truth. The atmospheric atmosphere carried throughout the rest of this opening movement sets the scene for the opera, or indeed the suite. The orchestral swells show Kodály’s rich orchestrations and effective use of the different sections of the orchestra. The climactic orchestral swells at the end paves the way for a quiet ending.


Movement II – Becsi harangjatek (Viennese Musical Clock)

The militaristic opening showcases the percussion section with the tubular bells and snare drum leading the way. During the story here, Háry sees the famous clock in the palace of Vienna. As bells chime, a bright and charismatic march tune announces a procession of wooden soldiers. The peppy march is played in unison by the woodwind section as sparkling percussion accompanies. Brass and woodwind start a dialogue, with Kodály also highlight some soloists in the orchestra. 


Movement III – Dal (Song)

The third movement of the suite is where we first meet the pure sounds of the cimbalom. Háry is homesick and his nostalgia is heightened by the sound of the traditional Hungarian instrument.  A solo viola opens this movement with a melancholic solo. Again, Kodály utilises soloists such as the clarinet, oboe and flute as they take over the viola’s mysterious opening melody. The movement is very nostalgic and evocative, with atmosphere evidently being at the forefront here for Kodály. As the cimbalom begins to play, the music begins to come to life, with Háry’s mood rising too.


Movement IV – Napoleon csataja (The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon)

Trombones and trumpets call the alarms as Kodály’s music becomes more comical. The alto saxophones are also utilised in this movement, and their unusual timbre adds an interesting edge to the movement. The French victory is marked by a brass fanfare and march. The dynamic writing and arrangement of sounds here is powerful and bold and edges on satire the whole way through. The brass accompanies a lone saxophone who leads the music to its end. 


Movement V – Kozatek (Intermezzo)

As the orchestra builds up in unison, with support from the cimbalom, this spirited dance is a traditional dance of Hungary. The whirling csárdás builds tension before quickly moving on. The cimbalom is at its most prominent here and really adds that authentic sound of Hungary to the music – something that Kodály was aiming for with this music.


Movement VI – A csaszari udvar bevonulasa (Entrance of the Emperor and his Court)

The final movement of the suite takes the form of an exaggerated pompous march. Again showing Kodály’s satirical style, the over the top drama and atmosphere creates a sense of brilliance within the music. The vivid journey of the music is brash, but very welcoming. The final movement concludes with an orchestral climax before a bold brass fanfare that leads to some organised chaos before a swift bang of the drum to signify the end of the piece. 


Final Thoughts

The colourful writing of Zoltán Kodály bursts through in the Háry János Suite. With intriguing instrument choices, timbral and textural decisions, plus the use of the cimbalom, Kodály has you hooked from start to end. A truly exciting suite of music that I hope to see live one day.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Georges Bizet: Carmen Suite No.1


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1 Comment

The Entrance of the Emperor and His Court by Zoltán Kodály – Wind Band Literature · 8th July 2021 at 7:53 pm

[…] More about the suite: LA Phil, IMSLP, Classic Alex Burns […]

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