Unforgettable king of the operetta

Published: 12. 10. 2022
Author: Silvia Mária Petrovitsová
Photo: Photo ÖNB, Facebook/ a/and
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The Merry Widow, Tsarevitch, Land of Smiles, Paganini, Tinker, Alone at Last, or the Count of Luxembourg. These are the names of Franz Lehár’s renowned operettas thanks to which music enthusiasts the world over know him to this day, even though he was born almost 153 years ago.

According to family lore, his great grandfather, Marquis Le Harde, was taken prisoner by General Alexander Vasilevich Suvorov during the Napoleonic wars. The skilled officer quickly escaped captivity and purportedly took refuge in the ruins of the Brníčko castle. In Moravia, he later married and settled with his family in Šumvald, where he started a glassmaking house. The composer’s father, Franz senior, and his brother, Anton, chose a musician’s life instead. Anton became a town bandmaster and Franz Sr. led a military band. Where his regiment was ordered, his family followed, all throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire. He got married in town during his posting at the Komárno fortress, and that is where the famous king of the operetta to be, Franz junior, was born.

Twelve years bearing the insignia

The musical talent of this operetta prodigy started showing at an early age. He regularly played in concerts with his father ever since he was five years old. During his time in Budapest, he attended a traditional grammar school and took piano lessons. The young Lehár spent his summers with his relatives in Šternberk and Libava. When visiting his uncle Anton, he would learn German and study music. When the Lehár family followed the regiment to Prague, the then-twelve-year-old Franz took up violin studies at a local conservatory under its headmaster, Professor Antonín Bennewitz. Based on a recommendation from his idol, composer Antonín Dvořák, he took private lessons with the composer, Zdeněk Fibich, who had a significant influence on his future work. After graduating from the conservatory, he spent several months as a concertmaster of the joint Barmen-Elberfeld theater orchestra. In 1890, Lehár enlisted in the military where he became incredibly technically proficient. He was first stationed for four years in Lučenec, and later in Budapest and Vienna. He left for the city of Pula after becoming the conductor of an Austro-Hungarian military orchestra. He sailed throughout the entirety of Europe with the Maria Teresia boat orchestra.

To the three-quarter rhythm

A turning point in Franz Lehár’s life came in Vienna at the turn of the century. He left the stable life in the army for the An der Wien theatre. Initially, his name could be heard in connection with respected waltz pieces, the most famous one being Gold and Silver, dedicated to Countess Metternich. This waltz is also often played by the violinist, André Rieu, and his orchestra during their concerts.

Despite not having worked on operettas in the past, his first piece, Ladies of Vienna, was well-received. However, his first major breakthrough was the operetta called Tinker, which takes place in the surroundings of Trenčín. While it has a German libretto, there are also parts in Slovak. Here, Lehár expertly used his knowledge of Slovak folklore. However, he only earned world renown with his operetta The Merry Widow, which includes the famous Vilja waltz. Despite the naysayers’ negative expectations, the operetta found success all around the world, starting in Vienna, where it was played for many months.

The year 1910 brought enormous success to the king of operetta. His works were being played all around the world, he got married, he even bought a luxury four-story home in the center of Vienna. He then went on to buy a resplendent manor home from Duchess Sabran-Ponteva in the Bad Ischl spa town, where he wrote many of his famous works. It seemed that after WWI he exhausted his composing reservoirs, however. At 50 years of age, he was forced to find not only new inspiration, but direction, too. From his initial fascination with Richard Wagner, through a more traditional style in the vein of the king of waltz, Johann Strauss, he made his way towards opera. He did not shy away from including the exotic, folklore, or even modern jazz in his works.

The Land of Smiles

In 1925, he moved to Berlin, where his operetta Paganini found great success. His ultimate triumph, however, was the piece called The Land of Smiles. This romance between a Chinese prince-diplomat and his beloved from Vienna originally had a happy ending, but the audiences had mixed reactions. His loyal tenor, Richard Tauber, convinced the librettists as well as the composer himself of the need to rework the piece entirely and make it end with the two protagonists falling out. The society at the time, hungry for anything oriental, exotic, and romantic to boot, gobbled up the reworked operetta with gusto. The Land of Smiles found great success in Prague and Olomouc as well. It has been a staple of the Czech theatre stages ever since.

In fear for his life

Despite his worldwide success, the composer stopped writing and secluded himself from society. He started the Glocken Verlag publishing house, where he gathered and published his own works. The political climate in Austria at the time, theaters losing popularity, as well as the antisemitic disposition of the society in the 1930s all had a role to play in Lehár’s seclusion. Even though his wife Sophia was of Jewish descent, they decided to stay in Austria. They spent the entirety of WWII in fear for their lives at their mansion in Nussdorf (now a part of Vienna), originally built for the librettist of Mozart’s Magic Flute, or at the Bad Ischl house. To save his wife, he chose to relinquish the royalties from his foreign shows in favor of the German treasury and dedicated a waltz, The Mouth Speaks Not, to Hitler. Lehár, who surrounded himself with Jewish friends – librettists and singers – from an early age, cannot be labelled as a Nazi sympathizer. His loyal tenor, Robert Tauber, managed to flee the country, but there were others Lehár could not help. The Nazis executed the librettists Louis Treumann and Franz Löhner, among other of the composer’s friends.

The Swiss epilog

After the sacking of Lehár’s Nussdorf mansion by an angry mob during the fighting in Vienna in 1945, he moved to Zurich where he applied for Swiss and subsequently Hungarian citizenship, to no avail. After the death of his wife, the sickly Franz Lehár returned to Bad Ischl, only to find his luxury manor where he wrote so many operettas ransacked. It is said to be there that the composer died on October 24, 1948, while listening to Verdi’s Requiem. According to his wishes, he was laid to rest alongside his wife, Sophie, and mother, Kristina, at the municipal cemetery in Bad Ischl.

The Nussdorf mansion was inherited by the composer’s brother, Hungarian officer, Baron Anton Lehár. It has been owned by the baron’s friends, the Kreuzer family, for several decades now as he willed it to them. It is open to the public on request to this day.

Manor turned memorial

The Komárno native and Bad Ischl citizen has not been forgotten. Even though the house where he was born no longer stands, a statue of his likeness has been erected in its stead. The former imperial spa town offers visits to Lehár’s manor, which has a distinct genius loci. He bequeathed the house to the town in his will and expressed a wish that it be turned into a museum to commemorate his life and works as well as his wife. The town held to his wishes. Each room is decorated the way it would have been during the composer’s life there. You can walk the halls of the place where masterpieces were composed. Lehár, known as a passionate collector, started several collections as early as in his Theobaldgasse home in Vienna. There are collections of furniture, paintings, and other art items that the composer had on display for his contemporaries and they remain to this day.

Franz Lehár memorial in Stadtpark, Vienna.


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