Zoltán Kodály published two works under the title Háry János. The first, a Singspiel, received its première on 16 October 1926 at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest, with Nándor Rékai conducting; the second, a six-movement orchestral suite drawn from the Singspiel, was first performed on 24 March 1927 by the Pau Casals Orchestra in Barcelona, under the baton of Antal Fleischer. The orchestral suite made it to America in the same year, and Willem Mengelberg conducted its first New York performances at Carnegie Hall on 15 and 16 December.

Contemporaries recall that the idea of composing a symphonic suite from the music of the stage work came from Béla Bartók who, following the failure of The Miraculous Mandarin at its 1926 world première in Cologne, had sought to ensure his work lived on in the form of a concert piece. While his Singspiel was an immense success on the Hungarian stage, heeding his friend’s advice Kodály went on to create what would become the most successful orchestral work of his oeuvre.

Zoltán Kodály with Emil Hertzka, his publisher, in Salzburg, 1924. All photos by courtesy of Balassi Kiadó, Budapest

Immediately after their respectivepremières, Háry János the stage work and Háry János the concert suite went fail to grasp the message of the stage work “beyond the music”, that is the four “adventures” framed by a prelude and a postlude, conjuring up the dream of freedom of an oppressed nation and its suffering people. This socio-historical type of theme had first appeared on the Hungarian operatic stage in the works of Ferenc Erkel, its spirit living on in Kodály’s Singspiel, compellingly reinterpreted by means of fairy tales, irony and folk song. Seeking to escape the dreary and harsh everyday world, Háry, the poor peasant boy, envisions himself being hailed as the hero of great historic victories, and finds retribution and consolation in a series of colourful dreams. This message was loud and clear to the Hungarian audiences – who had themselves undergone tragedies of historical scale – and it undoubtedly contributed to the extraordinary Hungarian success of the Singspiel which lasts to this day. However, it was not so obvious to foreign audiences less versed in the vicissitudes of Hungarian history, which raised an obstacle to the spread of the work outside of Hungary.

With Arturo Toscanini, at Lake Como, October 1928

It should be pointed out that comprehension of the orchestral suite is not conditional on knowledge of Hungarian history. The six movements present a plethora of lyrical and dramatic characters, a wonderful Hungarian dance, a playful battle scene, a comical funeral march, as well as a colourful and vivacious finale. The suite does not follow the dramatic plot of the stage work; it is an independent musical form in the spirit of diversity and wealth of character. The orchestral work spread like wildfire around the world. Over a period of three whole years (1928–1930) following the first performances it was performed on 150 occasions in some 80 cities from Aachen to Zurich. It was conducted by the greatest maestros of the world, including Ernest Ansermet and Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner and Leopold Stokowski. Kodály himself conducted it for the first time at Queens Hall in London on 30 August 1928. The composer also conducted the Hungarian première of the suite at the concert of the Budapest Philharmonic Society on 17 March 1929, his wife’s birthday. The event was attended by Béla Bartók and his wife Ditta who wrote on the cover of Kodály’s conducting score, “Emma, today’s a great day! I wish you many more like this! B and D, 17.3.1929.”

The protagonist János Háry – also known as Johannes Háry in the imperial army – was a real historical figure who served in the armed forces of Emperor Francis I, albeit not as a hussar, and even less so as a general. He was a foot soldier at the time of the Napoleonic wars. A war veteran released from the army, Háry returned to his home village in the Transdanubian county of Tolna in south-west Hungary where he lived a decent life as a potter. In the evenings at the village tavern he would regale his drinking mates – including, among others, the paunchy judge and the incredulous student – with his fantastic tall tales. Based on these, the poet János Garay (1812–1853) wrote the comic epic poem Az obsitos [The Veteran] which subsequently Zsolt Harsányi (1887–1943) and Béla Paulini (1881–1945) turned into a Singspiel libretto. Kodály set this to music in 1925–1926. The hero of the Singspiel – and of the epic poem – enjoyed such popularity that the word “Háryade” has become synonymous with a tall heroic tale in the Hungarian language.

Kodály, however, did not consider his hero to be a liar, and did not identify him with Baron Münchhausen. He believed, “He [Háry] is the incarnation of the Hungarian story-telling imagination. He does not lie, he creates a tale; he is a poet. What he relates has never happened, but he has lived it through, and so it is truer than truth.”

Kodály and Emma at breakfast, at the Völgy street cottage, September 1941
In Mailand.” Stage design for the Milan scene of Háry János, by Gusztáv Oláh

The first movement of the work, the prelude titled The Fairy Tale Begins, is a profoundly fiery invocation. It begins with the sceptical sneeze – a shrill glissando – of the astute student, after which the only theme of the prelude evolves triumphantly. This heroic musical idea soars from the depths to great heights on the wings of melodic and orchestrated variations, only to come to an end unfinished, without a climax.

The second movement, Viennese Musical Clock (originally titled A toronyóra [The Tower-Clock]), is a rondeau form where the theme recurs four times, with three episodes. Kodály had wanted to compose it on what he imagined to be the Viennese tune of the musical tower-clock in the Burg, but learning that the imperial palace did not have a clock tower, he sought a different solution. On the lowest rung of the ladder of Hungarian village society were the swineherds who would summon the herd at dawn by blasting their horns. It was this horn-motif that Kodály employed to depict the subtle, Rococo image of the magnificent imperial palace. In the stage version, every noon a soldier of each of twelve different corps of the imperial and royal army would appear on the balcony to the chime of bells, last the Hungarian hussar.

The third movement, Song, is a Hungarian pastorale, the love duet of the Singspiel, a glorification of the homestead in the language of instruments. The preponderance of cimbalom, clarinet and string solos is a subtle stylisation of Gypsy-band sonority. Repeated in different guises four times during the movement, the theme is a real folk song that Bartók had collected in 1906 in János Háry’s native Tolna county.

The fourth movement, The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon, is inspired military music, a novel and unique combination of winds and percussion: the fantastic, grotesque clash of the armies of Emperor Francis and Napoleon. The fanfare calling to battle is “false”, and it is resounded by the hills equally falsely. The terrifying march of the French imperial army is a concealed Marseillaise parody. The coda of the movement is Napoleon’s funeral march. Risen to the rank of a general in his story, Háry defeats the French emperor who slinks from the battlefield to the gloomy sound of the saxophone.

At Aldeburgh with Benjamin Britten, June 1965

Intermezzo is the most popular movements of the suite and it is often a piece in its own right. It appeared in its original form, a song, in the first Hungarian piano method, István Gáti’s A’ kótából való klavírozás mestersége [Mastering the art of piano playing from a score] (1802). Kodály had arranged it for chamber orchestra in the early 1920s for a stage work by the epoch-making Hungarian novelist Zsigmond Móricz (1879–1942). Shortly before the world première of Háry János, the director of the Budapest Opera House commissioned an intermezzo to fill the long scene-change time between the first and the second adventure. A slow composer, Kodály expanded the form and orchestral ensemble of this chamber-music dance, creating Intermezzo, one of the finest and most triumphant examples of the new national dance music of the 1800s, the verbunkos.

The finale (Entrance of the Emperor and His Court) is a festive piece, abounding in colour and light. It is a march with two themes and two episodes; the first the stylisation of a folk song calling the protagonist by his name (Hej, Jancsika, Jancsika), the second a scene depicting the solemn procession of the imperial court.


This edition is based on the first printed score published in 1927 (Universal Edition No. 8943), and was compared with Kodály’s own conductor’s copy, three additional scores held in the Budapest Zoltán Kodály Archives containing autograph notes, as well as the corrections from the piano reduction and the orchestral parts of the stage work, kept in the archives of the publisher. The present new edition has adopted only as many changes as could be authentically traced back to the composer’s intentions of revision. These being preponderantly dynamic or agogic accents, the provision of a detailed list was deemed unnecessary.

Translation by Miklós Bodóczky

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