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Kodály: Suite from “Hary Janos”

Prelude: The Fairytale Begins
Viennese Musical Clock
Song
The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon
Intermezzo
Entry of the Emperor and His Court


For piccolos I-III, flutes I-III, oboes I-II, Eb clarinet, clarinets I-II, alto saxophone, bassoons I-II; horns I-IV, trumpets I-III, cornets a pistons I-III, trombones I-III, tuba; timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, celesta; piano, cimbalom; strings

Composed 1925-26 for a song play in five adventures by Bela Paulini and Zsolt Harsanyi; the suite was extracted in 1927

First performed with the opera 16 October 1926 at the Royal Opera House, Budapest; the Suite first performed 15 December 1927 in New York, Willem Mengelberg conducting

Published by Universal Edition (Vienna, 1927)

Duration about 25 minutes

Hary Janos is a daydreaming veteran of the Napoleonic wars. The composer writes:

“Day after day he sits in the tavern and recounts his incredible heroic fears. He is a true peasant, and his grotesque inventions are a touching mixture of realism and naivete, of comedy and pathos. All the same, he is not just a Hungarian Baron Munchausen. On the surface, he may appear to be no more than an armchair hero, but in essence he is a poet, carried away by his dreams and feelings. His tales are not true, but that is not the point. They are the fruits of his lively fantasy, which creates for himself and for others a beautiful world of dreams…We all dream of the great and impossible. Few of us master, like Hary, the courage to utter our dreams.”   

The orchestral sneeze at the beginning indicates, by Hungarian tradition, that one is to take the ridiculous tale that follows with a grain of salt. Napoleon’s wife Marie-Louise has fallen in love with Hary, and along with Hary’s fiancee, Orsze, they go off in a carriage to visit the court. At the Schonbrunn Palace, a musical clock strikes the hour with a parade of lead soliders. The Song is an authentic Hungarian melody, stated first by unaccompanied viola, then in further strophes for solo woodwinds over improvisatory figurations: Hary and Orsze are longing for their distant home. Napoleon has heard of his wife’s infidelity and sets out with all his troops to avenge his honor. Hary engages the French in battle singlehandedly and they are vanquished to the last man-Napoleon himself. Hary agrees, this once, not to decapitate the defeated leader: “Just sign a plege that you’ll never annoy our emperor and terrorize our world again, so help you God.”

The music is a comic quickstep for brass and percussion with violently shrill piccolos and a plaintive saxophone; after the very obvious movement of defeat comes a funeral march, where the quickstep melody turns into a dirge for saxophone.

The Intermezzo that reflects on Hary’s military victory is, like the Song, strongly Hungarian in character. Both movements call for busy passage work from the cimbalom, a hammered zither of the sort you may well encounter in a Hungarian restaurant. Here, there is also the influence of the verbunkos, a kind of ceremonial dance descended from solider music the Austrians used to lure army recruits; the broad, heavy windup (lassu) inevitably springs out into faster, merrier maretial (friss). Now the Austrian emperor and court celebrate their triumph with a march. But Hary must renounce his pleasures: his new home awaits, and Orsze probably has dinner waiting.

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