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Composed: 1926
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (all = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), piano, celesta, cimbalom, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 14, 1929, Artur Rodzinski conducting

Of history’s composer twins – e.g., Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Bruckner and Mahler – Kodály and Bartók are the only two who can legitimately be paired, the others having been mated for textbook convenience. In their formative years, the Hungarians Béla Bartók and the year-younger Kodály studied with the same teacher – Hans Koessler – although the two students did not know each other at that time. It was not until they discovered a shared interest that the young musicians were drawn together. Starting independently, Kodály and Bartók began to explore the wealth of their country’s folk music that had remained hidden in the land’s remote regions.

In 1905, Kodály, then 23, set out to do what the 19th century’s most illustrious Hungarian musician, Franz Liszt, had intended doing in 1838, namely, getting “into the most backward districts of Hungary, alone, on foot, with a knapsack on my back, in search of folk music”. Liszt never made it to the hinterlands; he was far too busy devastating European audiences with his blazing pianism – and women with his matinee-idol attractiveness. Kodály did accomplish Liszt’s goal, and from the first venture came out with some 150 specimens of folk literature, which became the basis of his doctoral thesis in 1906. Similarly, Bartók took to Hungary’s villages, began collecting examples of the folk music, and he and Kodály became associated in their mutual obsession.

However, neither composer confined his activities to Hungary. In 1907, Kodály was off to Paris and to the discovery of a wholly new and different musical world than the one in which he had become immersed. The sophisticated Impressionism of Debussy provided the Magyar-saturated composer with precisely the stimulation he needed. The influence on Kodály of the French composer’s aural imagery was vastly important (as it was on Bartók when the missionary returned to Budapest with some of Debussy’s scores). It is indeed the assimilation of various traditions that we find arresting in Kodály’s music. The suite which the composer derived from his 1926 comic opera, Háry János, illustrates the ease with which he was able to paint in Impressionistic orchestral colors the comedic tale of a Don Quixote, Hungarian style.

Háry’s exploits are wondrously fantastic. The Empress Marie Louise, wife of Napoleon, falls in love with Háry and takes him to Vienna. Napoleon’s minister, himself in love with Marie Louise, declares war on Austria. Háry single-handedly defeats the armies of Napoleon; Marie Louise remains his love slave. However, realizing that he can find happiness only with his village sweetheart, Orzse, who has come to Vienna to be with him, Háry dismisses the Empress.

Kodály evaluates the incorrigible dreamer this way: “Háry’s stories are not true, but that is unimportant. They are expressions of the beauty of his fantasy which builds for himself and for others an artistic and absorbing world of the imagination. 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 Hungarian nation, whose strivings and ambitions can be fulfilled only in dreams.” How sad that Kodály did not live to see his country gain its freedom after so many years of subjugation.

  1. Prelude. The piece begins with a large orchestral “sneeze,” symbolizing the Hungarian belief that a sneeze made before the telling of a story indicates that what is about to be related is absolute truth. The remainder of the Prelude sets the stage for the wonderfully outrageous story.
  2. Viennese Musical Clock. Háry sees the famous clock in the palace of Vienna. Bells chime and a bright martial tune announces a procession of wooden soldiers.
  3. Song. Háry and Orzse are homesick, their nostalgia heightened by the sound of the cimbalom (a metal-stringed instrument native to and characteristic of Hungarian music). A solo viola begins the song in a melancholic spirit of longing; clarinet, oboe, and flute add their evocative voices.
  4. The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon. Trombones sound the call to arms; the orchestral satire broadens. The opening French victory march later becomes a saxophone dirge.
  5. Intermezzo. A whirling csárdás – a spirited, syncopated dance of Hungary – enlivens the proceedings.
  6. Entrance of the Emperor and His Court. Háry stands before the Emperor. The exaggerated pomp is brash and brilliant, summing up the vivid, impulsive adventures.

— Orrin Howard