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What the Fugue is a Cimbalom?

Our season finale, Victory, features the Háry János Suite performed on the cimbalom by Laurence Kaptain — okay, wait, what? Back up.

The suite of songs comes from a Hungarian folk opera of the same name by Zoltán Kodály. Our hero, “Háry János” or “John Harry,” is a loveable peasant, a veteran soldier who tells his far-fetched war stories to anyone at the bar who will listen — including winning the heart of Napoleon’s wife before single-handedly defeating him (and all of his armies!). The fact that his stories are fabricated is irrelevant, “for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world,” writes the composer.

Kodály gives Háry János a uniquely Hungarian sound with the infusion of the cimbalom. Pronounced like “SIM-ba-lome,” this Eastern European instrument looks as if a piano and xylophone had a baby. It’s played by beating hammers on open strings stretched across a trapezoidal board creating the cimbalom’s iconic twangy character. Think: taking mallets to a sideways harp. (Check out our renowned cimbalom guest artist Laurence Kaptain as he hammering away in a segment of the playful suite below!)

Even though the instrument may seem crazy-foreign, you’ve probably heard it in scores of blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sherlock Holmes, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Now, come see it in action at Victory!