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Franz Lehar and “The Merry Widow”

Franz (Hungarian: Ferenc) Lehár (April 30, 1870–October 24, 1948) was an Austro-Hungarian composer, the most prominent figure of the early twentieth century Viennese operetta revival, ranking among history’s greatest composers in the genre. While he composed other kinds of music, he is mainly known for his operettas, of which the most successful and best known is The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe). Lehár was born on April 30, 1870, in the northern part of Komárom, Kingdom of Hungary, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Komárno, Slovakia), the eldest son of Franz Lehár senior (1838–1888), an Austrian bandmaster in the Infantry Regiment No. 50 of the Austro-Hungarian Army, composer, and horn player with roots in the Czech-German Sudetenland, and Christine Neubrandt (1849–1906), a Hungarian woman from a family of German descent. He grew up speaking only Hungarian until the age of 12. Later he put a diacritic above the “a” of his father’s name “Lehar” to indicate the long vowel in Hungarian phonology.

While his younger brother Anton entered cadet school in Vienna to become a professional officer, Franz studied violin and composition at the Prague Conservatory, where his violin teacher was Antonín Bennewitz, but when he was tempted to pursue a career as a soloist he was advised by Antonín Dvořák to focus on composing music. After graduation in 1888 he was hired as a violinist in a Rhineland theater orchestra, then was drafted into the military and joined his father’s band in Vienna, first as violinist and then as assistant bandmaster, and following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps, he began a long career as a military bandmaster, composing marches, waltzes, and dances. His first opera, produced in 1896, was a failure, but in1902 he became conductor at the historic Vienna Theater an der Wien, where his first operetta Wiener Frauen was performed in November of that year.

Lehar’s first operettas, with the exception of Der Rastelbinder (The Tinker), were not terribly successful. Though most famous for his operettas, he also wrote sonatas, symphonic poems, marches, and a number of waltzes, the most popular being Gold und Silber, composed for Princess Pauline von Metternich’s “Gold and Silver” Ball, January 1902, some of which were drawn from his famous operettas. His greatest success on the stage came with The Merry Widow in 1905 with libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, that created a new style of Viennese operetta. Individual songs from some of the operettas have become standards, notably “Vilja” from The Merry Widow and “You Are My Heart’s Delight” (“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”) from The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns). Der Mann mit den drei Frauen (The Man with Three Wives), Der Graf von Luxemburg (The Count of Luxembourg), and Zigeunerliebe (Gypsy Love) were all given in 1908 and cemented Lehár’s success.

As Lehár became better known, his stage works became ever more ambitious, and he began to draw on the musical resources of contemporary grand opera, particularly the works of Puccini, in his scores. During the First World War he again conducted music for the military. After the war, Viennese opera declined in popularity as new kinds of popular music took over the scene, including blues and American popular dance tunes. Instead of acknowledging defeat, Lehár tried to incorporate these new elements into the Viennese genre. The result was more successes, leaving the world a legacy of some thirty stage works, besides numerous songs and orchestral items.

Lehár’s success in the 1920s was also due to his association with the operatic tenor Richard Tauber, who sang in many of his operettas, beginning with Zigeunerliebe (in 1920) and Frasquita (1922), in which Lehár once again found a suitable post-war style. Lehár made a brief appearance in the 1930 film adaptation The Land of Smiles starring Tauber. Between 1925 and 1934 he wrote six operettas specifically for Tauber’s voice. Lehár’s best operettas from the postwar period include Der Zarewitsch (The Tsarevitch) of 1927 and Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) of 1929. Lehár also began composing film scores and producing filmed versions of his operettas. Giuditta, based upon the biblical story of Judith, was his final opera, produced in 1934. Written for the Vienna Staatsoper, its dramatic content and music helped blur the distinction between serious opera and the lighter genre, which was on the wane. An ambitious work, it was broadcast by 120 radio companies.

By 1935 Lehaar decided to form his own publishing house, Glocken-Verlag (Publishing House of the Bells), to maximize his personal control over performance rights to his works. Lehár’s relationship with the Nazi regime was an uneasy one. He had always used Jewish librettists for his operas and had been part of the cultural milieu in Vienna which included a significant Jewish contingent. Further, although Lehár was Roman Catholic, his wife, Sophie (née Paschkis) had been Jewish before her conversion to Catholicism upon marriage, and this was sufficient to generate hostility towards them personally and towards his work. In 1929 and 1934, Lehar had conducted for Odeon records creator recordings from The Land of Smiles and Giuditta, starring Richard Tauber, Vera Schwarz and Jarmila Novotna. A 1942 Vienna broadcast of his operetta Paganini conducted by the composer has survived, starring soprano, Ester Rėthy and tenor, Karl Friedrich. A 1942 Berlin radio production of Zigeunerliebe with Herbert Ernst Groh, conducted by Lehár, also survives.

Hitler enjoyed Lehár’s music, and hostility diminished across Germany after Goebbels’s intervention on Lehár’s part. In 1938 Mrs. Lehár was given the status of “Ehrenarierin” (honorary Aryan by marriage). Nonetheless, attempts were made at least once to have her deported. On January 12, 1939, and April 30, 1940, Lehár personally received awards by Hitler in Berlin and Vienna, including the Goethe-Medaille für Kunst und Wissenschaft. The Nazi regime was aware of the uses of Lehár’s music for propaganda purposes: concerts of his music were given in occupied Paris in 1941. Even so, Lehár’s influence was limited: it is said that he tried personally to secure Hitler’s guarantee of the safety of one of his librettists, Fritz Löhner-Beda, but he was not able to prevent the murder of Beda in Auschwitz. Lehár remained in Vienna during the Second World War, staying aloof from politics, and thus only briefly attracted the attention of Allied anti-fascist investigators after the war. In 1947, Lehár conducted the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich in a series of 78-rpm recordings for English Decca of overtures and waltzes from his operettas. Lehár died, aged 78, on October 24, 1948, in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, and was buried there.

The following works by Franz Lehar are included in my collection:

Ballsirenen Waltz, on themes from The Merry Widow (1905).
Eva Waltz.
Giuditta (1934) Waltz.
Gold and Silver Waltz (1902).
Gypsy Love Waltz.
Luxenbourg Waltz, on themes from The Count of Luxembourg (1909).
Where the Lark Sings Waltz.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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