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In writing about Franz Lehar I am finding it difficult to go beyond the operetta for which he is most famous, 'The Merry Widow'. One of the most popular of all operettas, it was instantly successful, although it was thought rather risque, given its romantic entanglements.
In its first year ‘The Merry Widow’ was performed over 5,000 times in the U.S.A., and with five simultaneous productions in five languages in Buenos Aires, Lehar became a dollar millionaire at the age of thirty-five.
However I have learnt that he was born on the 30th April, 1870 in Komaron, Hungary, and grew up amid the sounds of operetta. His father was a military bandmaster, and the band, of which Lehar was briefly a member, played through the entire repertoire of Strauss, Suppe, Offenbach, and Italian opera buffa (comic opera).
From the age of twelve he studied the violin at the Prague Conservatory; in 1889 he joined the Austrian army and became the youngest ever military bandmaster; in 1886 he wrote his first opera ‘Kukuska’, and in 1924 he married Sophie Meth.
Franz Lehar came to Vienna during a critical period in that city’s history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, was in a long slow decline. The final collapse came in 1918 at the end of the First World War.
Lehar’s operettas cleverly tuned in to the traditional Viennese spirit of sweetness and charm, which was by then increasingly tempered with a nostalgia for a happier past.
‘The Merry Widow’ tells the story of a young and attractive woman, Hanna Glawari, whose rich, elderly husband has died just one week after their wedding, leaving her with the world at her feet.
In Act One a ball is held in Paris at the embassy of a fictional Balkan country, Pontevedro. One of the guests is Hanna, now a rich widow who the ambassador hopes will marry Count Danilo, nephew of the Pontevedrian king.
Danilo arrives from the famous restaurant Maxim’s, with six ‘grisettes’ (cabaret dancers) in tow. He sings a simple but endearing song about his tedious life serving the ‘fatherland’ in Paris. Solace only comes at night when, as he buoyantly declares ‘I go off to Maxim’s’.
With obvious pleasure he gives the pet names of the girls with him: Lolo, Dodo, Joujou, Froufrou, Cloclo, and Margot, then falls asleep in an alcove, little realizing he is about to meet his first love – Hanna.
It is a very short, but delightful song, and as I listened I found myself in immediate sympathy with this ‘poor’ young man. But for those who may not know I must tell you that Maxim’s was founded in 1893, when a waiter, Maxime Gaillard, decided to open his own bar and restaurant.
The Universal Exhibition of 1900 brought a huge, wealthy clientele to Paris,and Maxim’s soon became a fashionable venue, known for its exquisite food and luxurious décor. Today, although now part of a worldwide chain, the original restaurant in the Rue Royale still evokes visions of a bygone age.
‘The Merry Widow’ made Franz Lehar internationally famous, and triggered a brisk sideline in ‘Merry Widow’ bonnets, corsets, and cocktails.
Now I am listening to the orchestral version of a march called simply 'Women’. It is a fine and familiar piece of music, and I would imagine wonderful to actually march to. But in the staged operetta a group of seven male singers contemplate the problem of handling women and keeping them faithful. ‘What to think, what to say, what to do ? What a wonderful day if we knew.’ And Lehar provides a delightful pot-pourri of sparkling tunes before launching into his stirring chorus.
For contrast I followed this with the ‘Vilja’ song which Hanna sings as she evokes fond memories of her far off homeland in the Balkans. The chorus softly blends its voice with hers in what must be one of the best loved of all tunes from the world of operetta.
Hungarian born Lehar kept Viennese operetta alive well into the 20th century. Meanwhile others, notably Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg (another Hungarian) took operetta to America. There under the bright lights of Broadway, songwriters like Irving Berlin, and singing stars like Mario Lanza added an exciting new pace and energy to the old Viennese charm. By the mid-20th century operetta had been transformed into the musical of stage and screen.
Think of Lehar and it is hard not to think of the tenor Richard Tauber. On stage, on record, and on film, Tauber became one of the most popular international performers of his day. He began his career as a singer in his native Austria and established a considerable reputation in the tenor repertoire, especially that of Mozart.
When he turned to operetta his friends berated him for what they saw as a lapse of taste; his voice, and his musicianship, they said, was too good for operetta. To which Tauber responded by telling them “I don’t sing operetta, I sing Lehar.”
The Count of Luxembourg’, and ‘Land of Smiles’ and ‘Giuditta’ were written especially for this great tenor by Lehar.
Nineteenth century Vienna was the jewel in the crown of a vast empire that today comprises many nation states, including Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the former Yogoslavia.
Over time this cosmopolitan mix was reflected in the city’s music, which freely blended grand orchestral themes with the lighter melodies of middle European folk tunes and peasant dances. Both in the opera house and in the concert hall, Franz Lehar and his contemporaries evolved a distinctly Viennese style of music that was light, easy on the ear – and of course, perfect for dancing.
Lehar was a specialist in gently tugging the heartstrings. Dancing to his beautiful sentimental music it is easy to imagine we feel more than we do. When he died at Bad Ischl, Austria in 1948, he left behind a musical legacy that included thirty-eight operettas, and several film scores.