All operetta fans know Franz Lehár’s name well. Just think of the compositions of Wiener Frauen, The Merry Widow, The Count of Luxemburg, The Land of Smiles and The Gipsy Love which have all conquered not only the early twentieth century Europe but the entire world. Although Lehár started his composing career with the opera genre, after the first failures, he changed to operetta. With his popular compositions, he renewed the operetta genre and became one of the most prominent representatives of it, reforming the style of Viennese operetta that was a bit faded at that time. Altogether, Lehár wrote a total of 31 operas, most of them premiered in Vienna. On his talents, Puccini said that if Lehár’s interest had turned towards the world of operas, he would have been his greatest competitor.
Lehár Ferenc was born in Komárom, Hungary, but spent most of his life in Vienna and Bad Ischl. In his early childhood, his father taught him to play the piano. He began his musical studies at the Prague Music Conservatory, where he chose violin as his major subject. In Prague, he lived in in difficult circumstances as the money he received from his family did not even cover his basic needs. His situation only changed for the better when his father’s regiment was made to station in Prague.
Lehár received his first professional encouragement at the conservatory from Antonín Dvorák who taught him composition. He was the one who told Lehár to hang his violin on the nail and concentrate on composing instead. Due to Dvorák’s encouragement, Lehár started to take private lessons from composer Zdenek Fibich. But the director of the conservatory soon found out about these lessons, and forced Lehár to make a choice between either leaving the conservatory or abandoning his private lessons saying that these lessons were incompatible with the constitution of the conservatory. Lehár decided to stay, finish his musical studies and gain his degree since he only had one year left to complete. Lehár’s first works including some songs and sonatas were born during this time. When Lehár’s father showed Johannes Brahms Lehár’s Sonate á l’Antique’s, Brahms highly praised him.
After graduating, the young Lehár started to work as a first violinist in the city theatre in Elberfeld, thanks to Ernst Gettke, the former director of the Leipzig Theater, who was leading the Elberfeld Company. By the end of the year, Lehár was already a concertmaster. At the end of 1888, his father told him to go home to Vienna, where Franz Lehár played in the military orchestra led by his father, and where he later took over the conductor post from his father. His father saw a rival in young Franz, therefore, they had more and more disputes and disagreements in their small home. After nine months, Lehár decided to try and stand on his own feet so he went to Losonc to become the conductor of infantry regiment 25.
Years in Losonc offered him a great opportunity to compose at his own liking in his spare time. He first wrote songs and marches which were bought by the Hofbauer Publishing House in Vienna and the Rüder Publishing House in Leipzig. Due to a minor conflict, Lehár left Losonc and shortly thereafter he joined the Navy’s Orchestra in Pola which was very popular in the monarchy. When he had the opportunity to deal with opera, he resigned, and in this way his work Kukuska was born in 1896. It was only the Leipzig City Theater who accepted it and then introduced the piece. Later it was also shown in Budapest, but after its initial successes, the interest has gradually declined.
Later, Lehár headed for Vienna again, but the director of the Opera House there did not even respond to his work, and thus Lehár decided to continue with an operetta. He had a lot of difficulties and attempts until he became well known in the Viennese musical and social life and one of the most well-known conductors in the salons.
After leaving the army, he became conductor at the Theater an der Wien theatrical orchestra, and at the same time he was also a popular conductor at the Venedig in Wien where he could get familiar with the audience’s taste and also contacted some some librettists. Viktor Léon, a prominent librettist of the time who had earlier refused Lehár, now visited him and offered him his new libretto, The Tinker (Der Rastelbinder) for the composer’s formerly created military march. Unfortunately, he received very negative criticism, mainly because of the poor libretto. The audience, however, was pleased with the piece which was billed 225 times in 13 months. The need for operettas became stronger and stronger at the turn of the century. Financial security for Lehár was brought by the success of The Merry Widow. He also found his own style with it, and said the following:
“Instead of deep problems, music-lover Viennese expect something new and vibrating to recover from their daily work. They expect joy that captures every merry, innocent soul when pleasant music comes to their ears and the rhythm brings similar resonances in their soul … An operettist cannot write speculative, soul-wrenching music but must remain simple and folkish instead. It is difficult indeed – harder than we would imagine. An operettist should not want more than to become an operettist, however, he must beware of banality and must not compromise on the dignity of his music. If I may speak about the future of the operetta, I would say it will become more and more meaningful, approaching the vivacious operas in the end. Nowadays however, if a composer seeks to breed the operetta in this way, it is considered to be lack of good taste. Yet, the goal will be clear when musicians in grain turn to this genre as well.”
– Ferenc Lehár: My career (Mein Werdegang)
Due to the outstanding success of the The Merry Widow, Lehár was reluctant to make new compositions, because he knew that expectations from both the theatres and the audience were very high. When he started composing again, he started to work on three librettos: The Princess, The Count of Luxemburg and The Gipsy Love. His works among the audience were outstanding success, and after their introduction in Vienna, they were also taken to stage in Germany as well.
In the summer of 1910, Lehár moved to Bad Ischl, where two years later he bought the villa of Princess Sabran-Ponteves Adelhaid. At that time, Ischl was the popular meeting point for the representatives of Viennese music. Lehár met his later wife, Sophi here. She was still married; therefore, their relationship was only legalized 20 years later. According to Lehár, his best thoughts were always born in Bad Ischl. He was not very lucky in choosing his librettos and this fact was constantly emphasized by his critics. However, his music was always recognized. His works, for example The Land of Smiles and Cárevic were wonderfully embellished with folk traditions and exotic Oriental features. Lehár met Puccini in Vienna in 1913. Puccini had always recognized him. He says the following in one of his letters, addressed to Lehár in person: “Your operetta, Where the Lark Sings is in my possession, and all I can say is a bravo maestro! Refreshing, brilliant, and full of youth and fire!”
The majority of Lehár’s income came from German performances, therefore, it was important that his pieces were billed by German theatres. Unfortunately, his librettists were not Aryans enough for the Nazi Germany at that time and it made Lehár’s life rather very difficult. In 1938, when Nazi power grew stronger, he was warned by his friends to emigrate as soon as possible. However, he could not persuade himself to leave as he had everything in Austria: his publisher and palace in Vienna, and his villa in Ischl. He was aware that if he emigrated, he would not be able to secure his living for himself and his wife as there were no operetta theatres in America for him to be a conductor.
Following the German invasion in Austria, the Lehár family was constantly under the observation of the Gestapo. Because of this, Lehár thought it would be safer to move from Vienna to Bad Ischl with his wife. Unluckily, he was wrong as the men of Gestapo found them there and wanted to take his wife away due to her Jewish origin. Lehár only managed to save his wife with the help of his very influential political relationship. According to some records, Herrmann Göring helped Lehár’s wife Sophie by appointing her to be his honorary orphan. After this, fear became their constant companion, and Lehár never dared to leave his wife alone, whose health condition dramatically declined due to the constant fear.
With the disintegration of the Monarchy, the Viennese operetta lost much of its popularity. It was only in its glory until the society was built around the middle class, and it is best proven by Giuditta, Lehár’s last operetta.
It is 70 years ago this October, that Franz Lehár, the composer, operettist and conductor died of gastric cancer in Bad Ischl. 70 years later his works are still popular and the love and respect for the great composer has been passed from generations to generations among the operetta lovers.
Almost in the very last moment, two weeks before Lehár’s death, he was appointed to be the honorary citizen of Bad Ischl. He was buried in the cemetery in Ischl, and according to his wish, the Miner’s Orchestra played the Volga song at his funeral. Having no children, his villa and the lot of artwork he had collected during his lifetime was bequeathed for the city of Bad Ischl.