On December 30, 1905 in Vienna, The Merry Widow received its (somewhat rocky) first performance. It went on, of course, to become a roaring success in Vienna and soon everywhere else. Less than ten years later, all Europe was plunged into a bitter, senseless, and suicidal conflict. Looking back, can we see a foreshadowing of the abyss ahead? Perhaps—The Merry Widow seems, in retrospect, like a beautiful but bitterly ironic farewell to pre-war Europe…oh, those waltzes, the very embodiment of a lost world.
Lehár himself lived a long life that in its fluctuating fortunes seems to mirror the shifting and ultimately tragic tides of the times he lived through. In the year he was born (1870), Dickens died, Lenin was born, and Die Walküre premiered in Munich. In the year he died (1948), Gandhi was assassinated, Harry Truman was elected president, and Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway. Lehár was for most of his life (certainly after the stunning debut of Widow) a celebrity and was often photographed. I have chosen six images which encapsulate his fascinating journey. Some biographical notes and a few stories are appended. Acknowledgment here to Bernard Grün’s biography of Lehár as well as articles in The Viking Opera Guide and The Grove Dictionary of Opera.
1: Lehár was born in Komáron, Hungary, in 1870. His father was a military bandmaster and composer of dances and marches. At the age of 12, Lehár entered the Prague Conservatory studying violin, theory, and composition…and received some advice from Dvořák (“Know what, my boy? You should hang up your fiddle and write music.”). In 1888 he was called up for military service and joined the band of the 50th Austrian military regiment, playing under his father. He soon became the youngest bandmaster in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Lehár resigned military service to become conductor at the Theater an der Wien in 1902, where his operetta Viennese Women was performed in November of that year. Also that year, his waltz “Gold and Silver” was performed at a society ball and became all the rage. He composed several more operettas, with mixed success.
2: Then came 1905. The Merry Widow opened, soon becoming the greatest success in operetta history. The work heralded a newly-resplendent era for Viennese operetta through works of Lehár himself, Oscar Straus, Leo Fall, and Emmerich Kálmán. Lehár continued composing at an amazing pace but, not content with the apparent routine of the operetta genre, he was intent on developing his style. A sense of melancholy and fantasy appeared; the cohesive elegance of The Merry Widow gave way to quasi-historical exoticism coupled with comic numbers written in a more vernacular style. Lehár was unusual in his time in orchestrating his own scores, which he did with notable skill and imagination.
However, with the onset and uneasy conclusion of WWI and its social disruptions, his new works failed to attract the same wide public. His attempts of raise the quality of operetta while at the same time bringing elements of popular music into it (the foxtrot, tango, and shimmy) now brought critical cries of both pretentiousness and pandering.
3: A new era of success then arrived with his close relationship with the tenor Richard Tauber beginning in 1921. Lehár went on to write several works for him, and simultaneously Tauber made himself an international celebrity in the Caruso-Pavarotti vein. The association culminated in 1929 with the most popular and enduring of the Tauber vehicles, Das Land des Lachens (The Land of Smiles), with its unforgettable melodic effusion “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (“Yours is my heart alone”).
4: Lehár became involved with revisions and film versions of his operettas, also composing some original film numbers. His only entirely new stage work after 1929 was Giuditta, which premiered in 1934. It was in many ways his last attempt to resolve his own musical ambitions and the essentially popular requirements of operetta. The premiere at the prestigious Vienna Staatsoper was a glittering affair…but the critical reception (for the most part) was dismissive. Operetta in the sacred house of opera! Lehár was crushed. A few months later, Austria was absorbed into the Nazi empire.
5: In 1935 Lehár founded his own publishing house, Glocken-Verlag, and acquired the rights to most of his works with the notable (and financially, deeply regrettable) exception of The Merry Widow. Thereafter he concentrated primarily on preserving his works for posterity, making several recordings of his works.
6: During WWII he remained in Vienna and Bad Ischl, and his life in this period has remained controversial. His wife, Sophie, was Jewish (although she converted to Catholicism upon marriage and was declared in 1938 an “honorary Aryan by marriage”) and several of his friends and collaborators died in concentration camps. Yet he accepted honors from the Nazi government. In 1939 and 1940, he personally receieved awards from Hitler in Berlin and Vienna, including the Goethe Medal. On Hitler’s birthday in 1939 Lehár gave him a leather-bound score of The Merry Widow (reportedly one of the Führer’s favorites). Wrapped up in his music and shunning politics, his failure to protest Nazi atrocities later made him an object of suspicion outside Germany.
Suffering ill health, Lehár moved to Zurich in 1947. His wife died a year later, and that summer he returned to Bad Ischl where he died soon afterwards. His villa in Bad Ischl is now a Lehár museum and a memorial was erected in the Stadtpark in Vienna in 1978.
Lest we be left with this somewhat sad final glimpse of the man whose joyous and spirit-lifting music will always be with us, I would like to end with a charming, bittersweet anecdote of Lehár and his friend and colleague Puccini, as described by Lehár’s brother. It occurred during a visit to Vienna by Puccini in 1920:
From his period of service at Pola, Franz spoke pretty good Italian but Puccini had very little German. But there was no problem of communication, for already during the meal the two masters were conversing almost exclusively by quoting and softly singing alternately from their works.…Then they sat at the piano and played: Puccini with the right hand, Lehár with the left. The most wonderful harmonies sound forth, Puccinisms and Lehárisms, one surpassing another in sound eff ects and original turns of phrase.…[T]hey played happily on for another hour before Puccini had to regretfully depart for another engagement.