Franz Lehár: Meet The Composer Behind One Of The Most Popular Operas Ever, The Merry Widow

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

George Hall looks at the life and music of Franz Lehár, a composer who brought both huge popularity and a new respect to the world of operetta – and gave the world The Merry Widow

In a document he published under the title Bekenntnis (‘Confession’) in 1947, Franz Lehár asserted the artistic policy that had guided his musical career.

Aware that many people regarded operetta not as an artform but simply as entertainment, he ‘formed the resolve to create real people, and to depict them in such colours that they might actually have lived among us. They were to experience love and suffering as we do. Naturally, I had to express this deeper intimacy in the music. I had, without realising it, to employ operatic means whenever the plot demanded it.’

This philosophy is brilliantly put to use in one particular masterpiece of the genre that has ensured Lehár his place in the music history books, but he was no one-trick wonder. there’s more to Lehár than The Merry Widow.

When was Franz Lehár born?

The son of an itinerant military bandmaster in the Austro-Hungarian army, Lehár was born in the Hungarian town of Komárom (now in Slovakia) on 30 April 1870.

Where did he study?

As a child he was a promising violinist, and it was as a student of the instrument that he entered the Prague Conservatoire at the age of 12. Though he never formally studied composition, he seems to have had a few private lessons from Zdeněk Fibich and his early efforts were encouraged by Dvořák.

But it was as a violinist in a theatre orchestra at Barmen-Elberfeld that he found his first regular employment in 1888. He was soon called up for military service, though, thereafter spending periods first as a string player and then following in his father’s footsteps as a military bandmaster in various towns in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Along the way, hoping to establish himself as a composer, Franz Lehár wrote the opera Kukuška – his third attempt at the genre but the first to reach the stage – whose limited success in Leipzig in 1896 proved insufficient to allow him to put military service behind him. The turning-point came in 1902, when he produced the hugely successful waltz Gold and Silver for a Viennese society ball and subsequently started work as a conductor at the Theater an der Wien – then famous for its operettas.

It was there that his first completed work in the genre was produced in 1902: Der Klavierstimmer (‘The Piano Tuner’) was quickly followed by Der Rastelbinder (‘The Tinker’) at the rival Carltheater. Both won more success than two further operettas in 1904: Der Göttergatte (‘The Divine Husband’) and Die Juxheirat (‘The Mock Marriage’).

What is Franz Lehár most famous for?

But it would be with his next work The Merry Widow, that, at the age of 35, Lehár would hit the operetta jackpot and be forever remembered. A huge success, the first production of The Merry Widow ran for 483 performances before touring further afield.

When did Lehár compose The Merry Widow?

The managers of the Theater an der Wien had a libretto on their hands by the team of Victor Léon and Leo Stein, based on an old French boulevard comedy, L’Attaché d’ambassade (‘The Embassy Attaché’) by Henri Meilhac. One of Léon’s previous collaborators, the Austrian composer Richard Heuberger, was initially entrusted with the task of setting it; but after working on several numbers he relinquished the project.

It was Emil Steininger, secretary to the theatre’s manager, who suggested that Franz Lehár take over. Once shown the libretto, Lehár begged to be allowed to compose it. He was auditioned, as it were, by phone, playing the first completed number – the ‘Dummer, dummer Reitersmann’ duet for Hanna and Danilo – down the line to Léon, who liked it. The rest is history.

What is The Merry Widow about?

From The Embassy Attaché Léon and Stein fashioned a well-structured text that gives the traditional second operetta couple, Camille and Valencienne, an unusually serious love-affair to negotiate, allowing Lehár to incorporate some distinctly Wagnerian strains in their Act II love duet; but it is in the fascination of the relationship between the first couple that the operetta achieves a subtlety of response rarely evoked in the genre.

This is ‘second time around’ for the two participants who, following their previous breakup, are understandably wary of each other. It’s also cleverly contrived that their increasing intimacy is represented in dance: this is a courtship ritual in 3/4 time.

How successful was The Merry Widow?

Premiered at the Theater an der Wien on 30 December 1905, The Merry Widow was slow to take off, but its appeal – somewhat to the surprise of the management, who had spent little money on it – gradually proved genuine and ultimately universal.

More than a century before today’s industrial-scale marketing of musicals, the Franz Lehár operetta enjoyed epoch-making runs in Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris, New York and, indeed, just about everywhere a theatre could be hired; on one Saturday in Buenos Aires in 1907, it was performed in five different venues in as many different languages.

In its first 60 years, The Merry Widow garnered half a million performances, while Hollywood revamped it in glamorous cinematic treatments. The most celebrated version, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1934 and with Jeanette Macdonald and Maurice Chevalier singing lyrics by Lorenz Hart, is easily superior to the 1952 Technicolor remake. Ingmar Bergman, who directed the operetta on stage, wanted to make his own film version in the 1970s, though he and his intended star, Barbra Streisand, finally parted company over the screenplay.

What else did Franz Lehár compose?

Lehár could never quite match its success – partly, perhaps, because of the unusual quality of the libretto – but many of his follow-up shows enjoyed profitable international careers and still form part of the operetta repertoire.

The romantic Der Graf von Luxembourg (‘The Count of Luxembourg’, 1909) was his next major hit, musically almost matching the Widow in quality. It was succeeded by Zigeunerliebe (‘Gypsy Love’, 1910), much of whose opulent score, making widespread use of Roma-style fiddling, would fit perfectly into an opera. Then entering upon a period in which he consciously sought to expand the possibilities of operetta, he wrote Eva (1911), whose heroine works in a glass factory, and Endlich allein (‘Alone at Last’, 1913), revised in 1930 as Schön ist die Welt! (‘The World is Beautiful!’).

Meanwhile, Franz Lehár’s world changed fundamentally following the First World War; yet he managed to renew himself and his career with works that often drew on stories featuring new geographical settings (Spain, Russia, China, North Africa), with corresponding local colour.

Franz Lehár and Richard Tauber

He also received a boost from his collaboration with the great Austrian opera tenor Richard Tauber, who created the lead male role in several late operettas. Lehár recognised Tauber’s worth, writing on the tenor’s score after he appeared as Armand in Frasquita in 1923: ‘That you have taken Armand into your repertoire is, for me, artistically, a first prize. You can certainly feel the pleasure and devotion I experience conducting when you sing. I hope to have many more opportunities of wielding the baton when you produce your golden, radiant tones that bring us all into an ecstasy of enthusiasm.’

Tauber, a Jewish artist who, following Hitler’s coming to power, would eventually settle in London, took Lehár’s music to other centres, too, as W MacQueen-Pope and DL Murray testify in their biography of the composer, where they describe the tenor’s singing of ‘You Are My Heart’s Delight’ at the UK premiere of Das Land des Lächelns at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1931:

‘The figure on the stage began to sing, and something gripped that audience. They hushed to a dead silence as, very quietly but with infinite tenderness and appeal, he sang, for the first time, the refrain […] Seldom has there been such stillness in a theatre, seldom such withheld breath, seldom such pent emotion as while the beauty of the voice and music held them prisoners in its thrall.’

Tauber starred in eight of Franz Lehár’s works in all: revivals of Zigeunerliebe and Frasquita, the first Berlin production of Paganini (1926), and in the world premieres of Der Zarewitsch (‘The Tsarevich’, 1927), Friederike (1928), Das Land des Lächelns (1929), Schön ist die Welt (1930) and the composer’s swansong, Giuditta (1934) – a musical comedy of quasi-operatic ambition, granted the honour of a launch at the Vienna State Opera.

Lehár and The Second World War

Lehár’s later years were, unsurprisingly, clouded by the catastrophe that overtook Germany, Austria and the world in general. In his case there were two particular complications: firstly, his wife Sophie had been born Jewish, though she had converted to Catholicism on their marriage in 1924; secondly, Hitler was extremely enthusiastic about his music, and The Merry Widow in particular.

It was only through this last connection that Lehár was able to prevent his wife from being forcibly removed from their home at Bad Ischl in Austria; but if he tried similarly to save any of the Jewish artists he had worked with, as has been suggested in the case of librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda, he failed. Many died in Nazi camps.

When did Franz Lehár die?

Lehár himself died in Bad Ischl three years after the end of World War II. His legacy is a substantial body of work of fine craftmanship and genuine inspiration, in which he raised the romantic operetta to considerable artistic heights, never more so than in The Merry Widow – arguably the greatest operetta of them all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *