By Sigurd Neubauer
Ever since it premiered in Vienna in 1905, Franz Lehár’s (1870–1948) The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) has become the most beloved and performed operetta of all time. The Vilja Song, Damenwahl (Ladies’ Choice), and Da geh ich zu Maxim (You’ll Find Me at Maxim’s), among others, have become ‘blockbuster’ hits in their own right.
“The funny thing is that some of his best tunes – which he did not consider to be his finest – were crowned by his fans, and the lyrics were only added later,” says Stefan Frey, an author of three books on the Hungarian composer. His latest book, Franz Lehár: The Last King of the Operetta (Böhlau-Verlag, 2020), will be translated into English by the Operetta Foundation.
Frey is referring specifically to Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (You Are My Heart’s Delight) from The Land of Smiles and the Merry Widow Waltz. “Lehár didn’t recognize what he had composed. He was able to write for what was moving people at the time,” Frey says about the zeitgeist and the musical style of the early twentieth century during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
“Lehár was in a rush to complete the Merry Widow as his inspiration came quickly during the months of June through August 1905.” He was given the manuscript in May by librettist Leo Stein (1861-1921) – who in collaboration with Viktor Léon (1858-1940) – had initially wanted Richard Heuberger (1850-1914) to set music to it, but they did not like his composition, which is why they turned to Lehár.
Lehár was in a rush to complete the Merry Widow during the summer of 1905
Stein and Léon, who had already worked with Lehár in the past, had initially not wanted to collaborate with him again due to differences over Der Göttergatte operetta, which premiered at the Carltheater in Vienna in 1904, Frey reveals.
At the end, history wanted it otherwise as they turned to Lehár because they did not like Heuberger’s music.
“After Stein provided Lehár with the Merry Widow script, the composer took it to his summer villa in the Austrian resort town of Bad Ischl were he mostly finished the score, but the orchestration was completed once he returned to Vienna in the fall,” Frey says.
Die Lustige Witwe premiered at the Theatre an der Wien on the evening of December 30, 1905, where the operetta became an immediate international success.
The funny thing is that some of his best tunes – which he did not consider to be his finest – were crowned by his fans, and the lyrics were only added later
A few years later, in 1909, Lehár’s Der Graf von Luxemburg (The Count of Luxembourg) became another international success. The libretto was once again by Stein, along with colleagues Alfred Maria Willner (1859-1924) and Robert Bodanzky (1879-1921), and it premiered at the Theatre an der Wien.
Stein and Léon were frequent collaborators. Following the Merry Widow’s enormous success, Léon once again collaborated with Lehár by writing the libretto for the Land of Smiles (1830).
Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (You Are My Heart’s Delight) stands out as the operetta’s most famous hit.
“What the Merry Widow and the Count of Luxembourg have in common is that Lehár had to work very fast,” Frey reveals.
“Lehár was at his best when working under pressure and in a semi-unconscious state of mind when he didn’t have to think too much about the composition. He excelled when he followed his inspiration without any distractions, which Lehár was able to do because of the high-quality of his work. Lehár had sensibility and was able to adopt to the mood of the time and transform it all into music,” the Lehár-scholar explains.
On how Lehár drew inspiration for his music, Frey says that the composer started his work in the evening when things were quiet. “He liked to read the text and to repeat it; next, he wanted to find a melody that matched the lyrics as the spoken was very important to Lehár.”
“Lehár’s best ideas came shortly before falling asleep,” Frey says. He adds that the composer did not take anything that was stimulating to keep him awake – like coffee – unlike Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) who also preferred composing throughout the night.
“The Hungarian seemingly enjoyed composing in a semi state of unconsciousness. After he had discovered his melodies, Lehár started working on them first at the piano by writing down the musical notes. Next, the composer would do the orchestration but never allowed anyone else to do it for him.”
For most of his work, Lehár composed during the summer in Bad Ischl and finished the composition once he returned to Vienna, Frey reveals.
There are many urban legends about where the Lehár name came from as it is neither typically Hungarian let alone Austrian. One of these myths, Frey says, is that it had originated with a French officer in Napoleon’s army – who had met a nice girl – during the French occupation of Bohemia and Monrovia, which is how the Lehár family was conceived.
“This is not true, however,” Frey explains laughingly. “Lehár is a Czech name. Frantz Lehár Sr. (1838–1898), spoke Czech but also became the first German speaker of the family. The father had met his wife, Christine Neubrandt (1849–1906), while in the army. Neubrandt’s mother tongue was Hungarian, but she also spoke German.”
Lehár Jr., along with his brother Anton (1878-1968) and sister Emilie Christine (1890-1976), spoke Czech with their father and Hungarian with mother; they also spoke German.
Lehár Sr. was the first musician in his extended family, and eventually became a band leader in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916). On his mother’s side there were no musicians, Frey explains.
“After World War I, Lehár decided to identify as a Hungarian even though he could easily have chosen to either identify as Austrian or Czech,” he adds.
Lehar’s brother, Anthon, became a war hero during WWI and received the Order of Maria Theresa from Emperor Franz Joseph I. By ascending into the nobility, he became a Baron and was promoted to General while his name was changed to Anton Freiherr von Lehár.
Lehár followed in his father’s footsteps by leading a military band in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1890-1902
“The brother remained very loyal to Lehár throughout his life. Because the General did not have any children, Lehár provided his entire inheritance to their sister, Emilie Christine Paphazay, who had married a high-ranking Hungarian military officer and already had a son with him, István.
The Paphazay family eventually ended up fleeing the Hungarian communist regime in 1956 for the United States. The Paphazay family had 17 children who all ended up splitting the Lehár inheritance, Frey reveals.
Tensions with father
While Lehár was a child prodigy, who composed his first song for his mother at the age of six, “he did not like that he had to perform as a violin virtuoso from the age of four. He was even able to play in a dark room without seeing and had perfect hearing,” explains Frey while adding that “he was obviously very talented.”
“Conflict between father and son would eventually erupt after Lehár received a scholarship to study the violin in Prague, which he did not want to do. His father, however, insisted that he complete his studies – which took six years – but Lehár wanted to study composition instead,” Frey adds.
“He could have studied with Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), who supported his admission into his program, but the father would not allow it. Instead, Lehár later considered his years in Prague to be ‘wasted,’” the Lehár-scholar explains.
Once Lehár graduated in 1888, he joined the Elberfeld Opera as the first violinist where he remained for a year. After that, the young man began working in his father’s military band but rivalry between them erupted. “When Lehár Jr. was performing in the band, he got all of the applause, which father did not like and thus asked him to leave after only one year with his band,” Frey says.
As a child prodigy, Lehár did not like that he had to perform as a violin virtuoso from the age of four
Lehár immediately established his own military band, becoming in the process the youngest bandleader in Austria. While in the band, Lehár thought he could make a living as an opera composer, but his father wanted him to have a stable career as a musician and not be “a hopeless opera composer,” says Frey. Lehár remained with the band from 1890-1902, which included taking over his father’s band once he died in 1896.
During this period, Lehár composed two operas: Der Kürassier (1891/92) and Rodrigo (1893), along with various symphonic works.
“Lehár was very excited about sharing his third opera, Kukuška (1896), with his father. The father, however, died right before it premiered. By the time the father died, the two had already reconciled,” Frey reveals.
Lehár’s artistic legacy centers primarily around the new style of operetta that he created, which set the standard for other colleagues such as Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) to emulate. Lehár and Kálmán compositions were similar in style, Frey explains.
While Lehár’s music represented the atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he transformed the operetta into “a more serious genre as it put more emotion into it. His last works were pure emotion with only a little bit of comedy.”
The scholar is specifically referring to Der Graf von Luxemburg, which became a model for other operetta composers to emulate. Lehár, however, once said that “he didn’t have the intention to create a new school of operetta,” Frey says.
It was the Merry Widow that represented the cultural change once it premiered in 1905, the scholar concludes.
Lehár set the standard for other colleagues such as Emmerich Kálmán to follow
Der Kürassier (1881/82)
Arabella, der Kubanerin (1901)
Das Klub-Baby (1901)
Der Klavierstimmer (Wiener Frauen) (1903)
Der Rastelbinder (1902)
Der Göttergatte (1904)
Die Juxheirat (1904)
Die lustige Witwe / The Merry Widow (1905)
Der Schlüssel zum Paradies (revised version of Der Klavierstimmer) (1905)
Peter und Paul schlafen ins Schlaraffenland (1906)
Mitislaw der Moderne (1907)
Der Mann mit den drei Frauen (1908)
Das Fürstenkind (1909)
Der Graf von Luxemburg (1909)
Zigeunerliebe (Gipsy Love) (1910)
Eva (Das Fabriksmädel) (1911)
Rosenstock und Edelweiss (1912)
Die ideale Gattin (revised version of Der Göttergatte) (1913)
Endlich allein (1914)
Der Sterngucker (1916)
Wo die Lerche singt / Where the Lark Sings (Hungarian: A pacsirta) (1918)
Die blaue Mazur (1920)
Die Tangokönigin (revised version of Die ideale Gattin) (1921)
La danza delle libellule (revised version of Der Sterngucker) (1922)
Die gelbe Jacke (1923)
Libellentanz (revised version of La danza delle libellule) (1923)
Gigolette (revised version of La danza delle libellule) (1926)
Der Zarewitsch (1927)
Frühlingsmädel (revised version of Frühling) (1928)
Das Land des Lächelns / The Land of Smiles (revised version of Die gelbe Jacke) (1929)
Schön ist die Welt (revised version of Endlich allein) (1930)
Der Fürst der Berge (revised version of Das Fürstenkind) (1932)
Garabonciás diák (The Wandering Scholar, revised version of Zigeunerliebe) (1943)