Zoltán Kodály is a towering figure in 20th-century music: folk music collector, music educator, and composer. Along with his good friend Béla Bartók, he showed the world of art music the riches of Hungarian folk music. His opera Háry János, and more famously, the suite he derived from it, put it on full display.
Hungary has had a long tradition of foreign domination: the Turks for more than a century, then Habsburg Austria. Franz Liszt, the first internationally significant Hungarian composer, asserted Hungarian cultural independence and wanted to explore Hungarian folk music systematically, but he never did.
Kodály, on the other hand, helped establish the field of ethnomusicology and helped put Hungarian culture on the international stage.
Biography of Zoltán Kodály
Zoltán Kodály was born in 1882. His father was a railway official by profession and a lover of music. Kodály studied violin and piano and sang in the cathedral choir in Nagyszombat (now Trnava, Slovakia). He also taught himself to play cello so he could participate in his father’s quartet evenings and began to compose. His school orchestra performed an overture of his in 1897 and a mass the following year.
Kodály had both literary and musical interests. He studied musical composition at the Budapest Academy of Music and, at the same time, studied German and Hungarian at Budapest University. He received his diploma in composition from the Academy in 1904, a diploma in music education in 1905, and a Ph.D. in 1906 with a dissertation titled “Strophic Construction in Hungarian Folk Song.” He joined the Academy’s faculty in 1907
While still in school, he befriended Bartók and began to collaborate with him in collecting folk songs, recording them on phonographic cylinders. They started in the Hungarian countryside but soon enough started collecting folk songs from other countries as well.
In 1907, he studied composition in Paris with Charles Marie Widor. There, he discovered the music of Debussy, which had a profound influence on both him and Bartók. They became the first Hungarians to look to French music rather than German music for inspiration. Kodály also found influence from the church music of the Italian Renaissance.
Kodály’s international success
Kodály and Bartók began to present joint concerts that featured their music. Both became well known in Hungary and, to some extent, elsewhere. In 1923, Kodály received a commission to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Budapest by merger of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda. He composed his Psalmus Hungaricus based on a sixteenth-century Hungarian version of Psalm 55. That piece established his reputation internationally.
During his lifetime, Kodály was best known for his choral music, most of which supported his efforts in music education. The Hungarian language does not travel well and is difficult to translate. Most of his vocal music, then, is little known outside Hungary. He also produced some major orchestral works, which are better known internationally. Háry János, the first of his two operas, appeared in 1926. The suite is probably his best-known piece.
He retired as a professor at the Academy of Music 1940 but returned as Director in 1945. He also served as president of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he established its ethnomusicological branch in 1950, and the International Folk Music Council.
Although Kodály and Bartók published a collection of folk music early on, the comprehensive critical edition of their work appeared only in 1951.
Kodály received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1960 and died of a heart attack in 1967.
Háry János, the opera
The story of Háry János takes place early in the nineteenth century. Hungary was part of the Austrian empire, which suppressed Hungarian culture. Kodály provided the following preface for the published score:
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 that is 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 Hungarian nation, whose strivings and ambitions can be fulfilled only in dreams.
The Austrian empire collapsed after the First World War, leaving Hungary an independent nation, but US President Woodrow Wilson demanded that it disarm. At the time of the composition of Háry János, Hungary has lost control over about three quarters of its pre-war territory.
The years leading up to the Second World War saw great political instability. Afterwards, a communist government overthrew the pro-German regime and Hungary become a Soviet satellite. Kodály never lived to see a truly independent Hungary.
The opera shows his expertise in both Hungarian folk music and impressionist structure and orchestral color. It is a Singspiel. That is, its arias and ensembles are separated not by recitative but spoken dialog. Several important cast members have only speaking roles.
Háry János, or in the English name order, János Háry.is an aging veteran of the Austrian military. He loves to sit in the village tavern and regale others with tales of his war service. Some of his hearers possibly doubt that Háry is telling the truth, but one of them always sneezes.
As Kodály explained, Hungarians have a superstition that any statement is proved true if one of the hearers sneezes. So the very first sound the audience hears is the whole orchestra sneezing! The opera has a prologue, four stories, and an epilog.
Háry is stationed at the border between Hungary and Russia. He helps Marie Louise, the daughter of Emperor Franz, cross the border. Among other accomplishments, he pushes the Russian guardhouse onto Austrian territory.
He follows the princess to Vienna, where he tames the most unbreakable horse in the imperial stable. Marie Louise rewards him, arousing the jealousy of Napoleon’s ambassador. The ambassabor presents the emperor with a declaration of war.
So Háry is stationed at a castle in Milan (which Austria also ruled at the time) when Napoleon attacks. Háry single-handedly defeats his army and takes him prisoner. Marie Louise had been betrothed to Napoleon, but now, she wants to marry Háry instead.
The wedding is about to take place in the Viennese court, but Háry decides he’d rather return to his village and marry his childhood sweetheart Örzse, who has appeared in all the previous stories.
In the epilogue, Háry relates how he and Örzse had a big wedding and lived happily in the village for a long time. She could verify the truth of everything he told, but, unfortunately, she had died.
Háry János Suite
The opera has seen only a few performances in the West. The Suite became immediately popular and remains among Kodály’s best known and best loved works. It comprises six movements, which are not in the same order they occur in the opera.
- The Prelude: The Fairy Tale Begins. – After the opening sneeze, the prelude sets the stage for Háry to tell his outrageous but obviously true tales.
- Viennese Musical Clock. Háry describes the famous clock in the emperor’s palace as chimes and a martial tune portray a procession of wooden soldiers.
- Háry and Örzse sing of their homesickness. The cimbalom, a Hungarian folk instrument comparable to a hammered dulcimer, underlines their nostalgia for their village.
- The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon. Trumpets and trombones announce the beginning of the French invasion. Háry single-handedly defeats Napoleon, however, and a saxophone transforms the opening victory march to a dirge for Napoleon’s funeral. As a trombonist, I especially appreciate this movement. In most orchestral music that includes trombones at all, including half of the suite, the trombones merely sit and listen to the strings and the rest of the orchestra. But here, the strings sit and listen to the trombones!
- This lively csárdás has nothing to do with the plot. In the opera, it is heard between the first and second stories.
- Entrance of the Emperor and his Court. Háry, has, in fact, never been to Vienna and has never seen the emperor. So the scene describes what the peasant imagination thinks being presented at court ought to be like. Oh. excuse me. We found out in the first two measures of the suite that everything is true.
Háry János Suite / LA Philharmonic
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan, 1980) s.v. Hungary and Kodály, Zoltán
Zoltán Kodály / Boosey & Hawkes
Zoltán Kodály / Seattle Chamber Music Society
Zoltán Kodály: Háry János / Opera: Hungarian State Opera
Zoltán Kodály: Háry János Suite / Alex Burns, Classicalexburns. May 23, 2020