Háry János Suite

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Háry János Suite, Op. 15

  1. Prelude
  2. Viennese Musical Clock
  3. Song
  4. Battle and Defeat of Napoleon
  5. Intermezzo
  6. Entrance of the Emperor and His Court

Kodály wrote this music in 1926 to accompany an opera based on a poem by János Garay. Háry János (pronounced yahn’-osh) was an old man who invented stories about adventures he had had when he was younger – and Kodály intended his music to be taken as seriously as the old man’s claims.

The suite starts with a musical imitation of a sneeze, and from then on is packed full of excitement and tension. After the Prelude, the story begins with Háry at the Austrian Emperor’s court where he hears the clocks strike at midday. Needless to say, plenty of percussion is used in this movement! The emperor then sends Háry on various adventures…

Next there is a change of pace for the Song. This begins with a solo Viola, which is then joined by the cimbalom. The cimbalom is a Hungarian dulcimer – a box with strings that are played with small mallets – and has quite a distinctive sound. A Hungarian folk song supply the tune used in this movement.

The most ludicrous of Háry’s claims is that he single-handedly defeated Napoleon’s army. The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon begins with a drum march, and its various brass fanfares seem to mock rather than depict a battle. The movement reaches a triumphant climax, and then finishes with slow, siding trombones, leaving the listener with no doubt about the authenticity of the old man’s story. A solo saxophone plays the concluding theme of the movement.

Next comes the Intermezzo, the climax of the suite and without a doubt the most catchy tune! The style is that of traditional Hungarian dances, and the cimbalom is used once again, throughout the whole of this movement. The piece follows ABA form, the middle section being slower but just as exciting. Despite many repeats, this movement leaves the listener wanting to hear more!

Finally, we witness the Entrance of the Emperor and His Court. Beginning with a march similar to that at the start of the Battle, this quick-moving finale hints at themes used earlier – most noticeably the final bells signifying the clocks in Vienna striking once again.

You may wonder why I describe the suite as being exciting. That was the impression it made the first time I heard it, and one that has remained after many repeat listenings. It would be an accessible introduction to twentieth century music, and is a fine example of how music of this period – or “classical” music of any age for that matter – can be fun.

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