Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967)

Zoltan Kodaly was a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist.  He originated the Kodaly method, which was a teaching strategy to help young students learn to sing.  The idea of the Kodaly method is to teach performance before learning to read music.  Later, the composer, Carl Orff, used similar strategies for students to learn to play instruments.  Kodaly travelled with Bartok collecting melodies from central and Eastern Europe using a phonographic cylinder. 

Kodaly’s father was an amateur musician.  At age 18, Kodaly entered the University in Budapest.  Following that, he attended the Franz Liszt Academy.  Kodaly and Bartok remained close friends and there was a continuous exchange of ideas with Bartok.  Kodaly’s composition was influenced by Debussy. 

Kodaly never reached the same commercial success as Bartok.  He is remembered for a few pieces and for his valuable contributions to music education.  Kodaly opened the first elementary music school in Hungary.    He wrote books about music.  He enjoyed high position in society and was president of several musical organizations.

Háry János

Háry János is a Hungarian folk opera in four acts based on the comic epic, The Veteran.  It was premiered in 1926. The sub-title of the piece is János Háry: his Adventures from Nagyabony to the Vienna Burg.   The story is of a veteran hussar in the Austrian army in the first half of the 19th century. He sits in the village inn regaling his listeners with fantastic tales of heroism. In the story he relates winning the heart of the wife of Napoleon and then single-handedly defeating Napoleon and his armies. Nevertheless, he finally renounces all riches in order to go back to his village with his sweetheart.

Kodály wrote in his preface to the 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 humor and pathos.” He also comments that “though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a natural visionary and poet. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world.”  Háry János embodies the poetic power of folklore to go beyond political frustrations; Kodály intended to bring his national folk music to an operatic setting.

The opera, and the suite, begin with an orchestral ‘musical sneeze.’  According to Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze of one of the hearers, it is regarded as confirmation of its truth. One of Háry’s group of faithful listeners sneezes at the wildest assertions of the old tale-spinner.


From the music of the opera, Kodály extracted the orchestral Háry János Suite, a popular piece in the classical repertoire. This notably includes the cimbalom, a traditional Hungarian variant of the hammer dulcimer.

The movements of the Háry János Suite are as follows:

 Prelude; the Fairy Tale Begins

Viennese Musical Clock


The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon


Entrance of the Emperor and His Court

 The Cimbalom

 The word, cimbalom, refers to hammered dulcimers in central and eastern Europe.  These instruments can differ from each other in size, tuning, number of strings and method of holding and moving the beaters. They are smaller and more portable than the concert cimbalom. In performance they are often carried, typically using a strap around the player’s neck and leaning one edge of the instrument against the waist.

 Like the concert cimbalom, the folk hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with two beaters. However, these are generally shorter than the beaters used with the concert cimbalom and often do not have the soft coverings over the area which strikes the string. These instruments also lack damper mechanisms, so the hand, fingers, or forearms are used for damping. Tunings are partially chromatic or diatonic, rather than the fully chromatic tuning of the concert cimbalom, and they can vary regionally according to the scales used in the music of that region.

The concert cimbalom was developed by József Schunda in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary.  It is closer in its range of pitch, dynamic projection, and weight to the proportions to that of a small piano. The Schunda cimbalom was equipped with a heavier frame for more stability and dynamic power. Four detachable legs were added to support this much larger instrument.  Concert instruments from Schunda onward are fully chromatic. The concert cimbalom can now have a range that extends five fully chromatic octaves from AA to a′′′.

The Curwen Hand Signs