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Franz Lehár: The Austro Hungarian Composer for "The Merry Widow"

Franz Lehár was born on the 30th of April, 1870, in the Kingdom of Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian composer is reputed for his operettas, especially “Die lustige Witwe” or “The Merry Widow.”

Franz Lehár at piano in his apartment in Vienna

Early life

Lehár was the eldest son of Christine Neubrandt and Franz Lehár, a bandmaster of the Austro-Hungarian Infantry. The Lehár family resided in Komárom, northern Hungary, where a young Franz became fluent in Hungarian during his early childhood. He even incorporated an acute accent over the “a” in his surname to comply with Hungarian orthography, changing it to “Lehár.”

Franz joined the Prague Conservatory to study “violin” under Antonín Bennewitz. However, he was soon advised to focus on music composition by Antonín Dvořák. He ultimately chose violin due to two factors- the Conservatory didn’t allow the students to study both simultaneously, which led to his father and teacher pressurizing him to take “violin,” citing that he can always study composition later. Although he undertook a few secret classes under Zdeněk Fibich, he was mostly a self-taught composer.

Musical Journey

In 1888, he completed graduation and joined Lehár senior’s band as an assistant bandmaster. In 1890, he became a bandmaster at Lučenec, Slovakia - the youngest in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Army. He left the Army in 1894 and joined the Navy as a Kapellmeister. He resigned in 1896 to work on his first opera titled “Kukuschka.” It premiered in Leipzig to mild success, prompting Franz to rejoin the Army in Budapest. He joined the Vienna garrisons in 1899, and three years later, was promoted as the conductor of the famous “Theater an der Wien” in Vienna. In November, his operetta titled “Wiener Frauen” premiered at this historic venue.

Other than widely revered operettas, he also crafted marches, symphonic poems, and sonatas. He further composed several waltzes, often taking inspiration from his own operettas. “Gold und Silber” was his most famous waltz, crafted for Princess Pauline von Metternich's ball. His operettas have also offered some brilliant individual numbers, notably “You Are My Heart's Delight” and “Vilja.” In 1934, he composed the song “On my lips every kiss is like wine” for “Giuditta,” his most ambitious project.

Franz Lehár was closely associated with Richard Tauber, an operatic tenor who performed in several of his operettas, namely - “Frasquita” and “Zigeunerliebe.” Lehár crafted six operettas between 1925-1934, collaborating with Tauber in all those projects. In 1935, he created “Glocken-Verlag,” his own publishing house, to ensure he has control over the “performance rights” to his works.

Dealing with the Third Reich

Franz Lehár had an uneasy relationship with the Nazi party due to his frequent collaboration with Jewish librettists for his works. He was also an important member of the cultural fraternity in Vienna, which comprised a significant Jewish contingent. Also, his wife Sophie was Jewish by birth before converting to Catholicism. These were sufficient to generate the ire of the Nazi regime towards his work and himself, even on a personal level. Although Adolf Hitler enjoyed his music, and Joseph Goebbels’ intervened to reduce hostility against the Lehárs, the relationship remained unstable. On the one hand, Sophie Lehár was entitled with the honorary Aryan tag of “Ehrenarierin” on the opposite spectrum, attempts were made to have her deported.

In 1939 and 1940, Lehár received the “Goethe Medal” and other personal rewards from the Nazi Supremo. In 1938, Lehár gifted Hitler a special volume of the 50th performance of his operetta “The Merry Widow” as a birthday present. Also, the Nazis were aware of Lehár’s usefulness. Especially his music was utilized to aid their propaganda. But his personal influence was always kept at bay. Lehár failed in his attempt to lobby for Fritz Löhner-Beda’s life. Beda, one of his librettists, was eventually murdered in Auschwitz. In 1942, he again failed to prevent the detention of his associates Louis and Stefanie Treumann to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they eventually passed away.

Sweeping Melodies

Lehár was a remarkable melodist and has left behind some exceptional and peppy tones. His early compositions (read operettas) indicated a distinct orchestration style that gradually matured with time. Even his critics hailed his “fresh and charming” compositions. He also earned brownie points for creating a middle ground in the musical spectrum - most of his works something between an opera and operetta. This offers a glimpse of his musical abilities, the development of a futuristic style, a graceful magnetism that radiated throughout. 

Lehár treated both veristic and naturalistic dramas uniformly. His earlier works were a tad serious, while his later compositions started highlighting the conventional lightness of operettas. He started incorporating new musical styles into his works, namely - American jazz, tango, one-step, foxtrot, blues, etc. He was inspired by the syncopated piquancies and rhythmical flourishes from the Jazz world, including them in his comedy numbers. His compositions can be overtly predictable but offer a unique, memorable style that penetrates all through his art songs and operettas. The art songs imbue common characteristics of eighteenth-century melodies - like utilization of strophic forms, piquancies, supportive accompaniments, bass/melody dominant, common cadences and chord progressions, periodic phrases, etc. They offered an expanded harmonic palate, with increased use of dissonances complemented by lyrical melodies.

His music was perhaps less significant than his contemporary works. Lehár’s songs are competent enough to carve their own niche in the 19th-century Romantic art song repertoire.

Franz Lehár passed away on the 24th of October, 1948, and was buried in Bad Ischl, near the city of Salzburg. Lehár’s compositions, especially his art songs, speak volumes about his penchant for being a “composer of expediency.” One can say they were more of an afterthought, which is down to the composer’s habit of composing music at the crack of dawn. If 19th-century classical music is considered vintage champagne, Lehár’s music will always be considered as an intoxicating, aromatic fragrance. His sensitive musical setting deserves the attention of any music enthusiast and singer.


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