Háry János

Háry János is a Hungarian folk opera (that is, a spoken play with songs, in the manner of a Singspiel) in four acts by Zoltán Kodály to a Hungarian libretto by Béla Paulini (1881–1945) and Zsolt Harsányi, based on the comic epic The Veteran (Az obsitos) by János Garay. The first performance was at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, Budapest, 1926. The subtitle of the piece is Háry János kalandozásai Nagyabonytul a BurgváráigJános Háry: his Adventures from Nagyabony (Great Abony) to the Vienna Burg.[1] The UK stage premiere was at the Buxton Festival in 1982 conducted by Anthony Hose with Alan Opie in the title role.[2]


The story is of a veteran hussar in the Austrian army in the first half of the 19th century who sits in the village inn regaling his listeners with fantastic tales of heroism (in the tradition of Miles Gloriosus[2]). His supposed exploits include winning the heart of the Empress Marie Louise, 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 humour 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."[3] 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.[1]

Both the opera and the suite begin with an orchestral 'musical sneeze', best explained in Kodály's own words: "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. The Suite begins with a sneeze of this kind! One of Háry's group of faithful listeners … sneezes at the wildest assertions of the old tale-spinner."[4]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 16 October 1926[5][6]
(Conductor: Nándor Rékai)
Háry János baritone Imre Palló
Örzse, his betrothed mezzo-soprano Izabella Nagy
Empress of Austria soprano Sári Sebeök
Napóleon baritone Viktor Dalnoki
Mária Lujza, wife of Napóleon mezzo-soprano Rózsi Marschalkó
Öreg Marci, emperor’s coachman baritone János Körmendy
Knight Ebelasztin, chamberlain to the Empress Mária Lujza tenor Gyula Toronyi
Emperor Franz spoken Sándor Pusztai
Emperor’s mother-in-law spoken Teréz Fazekas
Countess Melusina spoken Józsa Szabó
Baroness Estrella spoken Aranka Pállfy
General Krucifix spoken Rezsö Kornai
General Dufla spoken Zsigmond Hubai
A student spoken Kalmán Szügyi
Abraham, an innkeeper spoken
Hungarian sentry spoken
Russian sentry spoken
Village elder spoken
Generals, French and Hungarian soldiers, people at the borders and at court



Prologue – The Tale Begins

In the Hungarian village of Nagyabony people gather at the tavern. A picture of Napoleon hangs on the wall. The regulars and students wait glass in hand for the next tale from the old soldier Háry János.

First Adventure – On the frontier near Moscow

A border crossing point between Galicia and Russia; there is frost and ice on the Russian side, sun shining and flowers blooming on the Hungarian side. János, after having got rid of all his female admirers meets Örzse.

The court chamberlain complains that Mária Lujza and her retinue have not been able to cross the frontier. Örzse and János talk with Marci, a Hungarian coachman working at the French Court, who tells them that Mária Lujza, the daughter of the Emperor, is being refused passage by the Russian guard. János pushes the border gate along the ground, so that she finds herself across the Hungarian frontier. Marci toasts the young couple as Örzse and János sing a duet. Ebelasztin says the noise is disturbing the rest of the princess. However when Mária Lujza enters she takes a fancy to János and invites him to come to Vienna and enter the Imperial Guard. He asks for double rations for his horse, Hungarian livery for Marci, and for Örzse to come with him. The Russian sentry is worried that he will be punished if he is found in the wrong country. Ebelasztin fails to push the frontier post back, but János manages to do it.


Second Adventure – In the Garden of the Imperial Palace, Vienna Burg

The park is resplendent. In the course of conversation between János and Marci Ebelasztin's dislike of János becomes clear. Mária Lujza tells János to seek her if he ever needs assistance. Ebelasztin sends János to the stables where he has to ride the wildest horse, but János returns from the roof unruffled by the ride. Mária Lujza points out János to the Empress. The envious Ebelasztin tells Örzse that he has in his pocket the declaration of war from Napoleon which he intends to use; moments later military sounds emerge from inside the palace. János has been promoted to captain by the Emperor. As the curtain falls an enormous cannon is wheeled on.

Third Adventure – A battlefield near Milan.

Háry János, by now promoted to the rank of colonel, single-handedly wins the battle with the wind from drawing his sword, and has Napoleon kneeling for mercy. The emperor’s wife now wants to win his heart, to the consternation of Örzse. Mária Lujza and Örzse argue over János, who refuses to marry the princess, who in turn threatens suicide. János saves the situation and leads the soldiers in a rousing march.

Fourth Adventure – Imperial Palace, Vienna Burg.

The preparations for the wedding of the hero János and the infatuated princess are under way, but János can't eat. All the archdukes come and pay homage to the hero. Örzse arrives to take leave of Háry but, now an infantryman, he swears allegiance to the Emperor - whether as a soldier or farmer. True to her and to his homeland, despite all the imperial trappings they leave the court.


Back at the inn in Nagyabony, János concludes by telling his sleeping audience that the condition of freeing Napoleon was that a gold watch should be sent to the headman of the village – who replies that he never got it. János states that the only person who can corroborate his story is Örzse – who is now dead.

Musical numbers


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 world première of the suite was at the Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, on 24 March 1927, by the Pau Casals Orchester conducted by Antal Fleischer.[7]

The suite is scored for three flutes (all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B-flat (one doubling clarinet in E-flat and one doubling alto saxophone), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 cornets in B-flat (used in the last movement only), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, bells, chimes, xylophone, celesta, piano, cimbalom and strings.

The movements of the Háry János Suite are as follows:

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

People may assume that the title Háry János refers to a man named Harry. In Hungarian, names are always presented in the order 'surname', 'first name' (as in Bartók Béla and Liszt Ferenc). Therefore, the title refers to a man called János (a common first name in Hungary, equivalent to the English John), whose surname is Háry. The name was never 'anglicized' (i.e. with the names put in the more usual order) outside Hungary.

Film adaptations

The play has twice been adapted into films, both Hungarian: a 1941 film Háry János directed by Frigyes Bán and a 1965 film Háry János directed by Miklós Szinetár.



  1. 1 2 Tallian T. Háry János. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
  2. 1 2 Milnes R. Two resounding sneezes. 3 [Radio 3 magazine], January 1983, pp, 41-46.
  3. Quoted in: Eösze L. Zoltán Kodály – his life and work. Collet’s Holdings Ltd, London, 1962.
  4. Quoted in liner notes by Harold Lawrence adapted for CD recording on Mercury label, 1990.
  5. Houlahan M & Tacka P. Zoltán Kodály – a guide to research. Garland, New York & London, 1998.
  6. Playbill of original production, reproduced in programme of Erkel Színház, May 2001.
  7. Universal Edition page on Háry János Suite Accessed 1 June 2011.
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