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Franz Lehar: Franz Lehar (b. Komarom, 30 April 1870; d. Badlschl, 24 0ct 1948).
For many generations, the Lehar family lived in a village called Lesnitz, in what was then part of Austria, but is now Czechoslovakian. They were glaziers, until one of them Lehar the elder, showed some musical promise and was allowed to study. By the time he was twenty-four, Lehar had become Bandmaster of an Austrian Regiment, the youngest Bandmaster in the Imperial Austrian Army. After the war with Italy, in 1869, the Regiment was sent to a small town in Hungary, where Bandmaster Lehar married a local girl. A year later, their son Franz Lehar was born.
Franz Lehar, it was eventually discovered, had inherited his father's musical ability. While the family was kept continually on the move with the Regiment, the child had to study as best he could. By the time he was twelve, however, he had won a scholarship to the Music Academy in Prague where he stayed for six years. He had already begun to compose, and had also become a very proficient performer on the violin. When he showed some of his student pieces to DvoYak, the eminent composer said 'You know what, my lad? You should hang up your fiddle, and concentrate on composing music' And when Brahms visited Dvorak in Prague, he too encouraged the young Franz Lehar.
After leaving the Academy, Franz Lehar took a job as first violinist in a small German theatre, but after a year of this decided to follow his father into the Army as a musician. 'I obtained the post of Bandmaster', he said later, 'with a Regiment stationed in a Hungarian village. At twenty, I was the youngest Bandmaster ever appointed in the entire Army, beating my father's record by four years.' Soon he had written an opera, Kukuschka, and when a Viennese publisher expressed interest in it Franz Lehar impulsively gave up his Army post to become a full-time composer. His opera, in the style of Mascagni, whose Cavalleria Rusticana Franz Lehar had very much admired, was produced in Leipzig and later in Budapest. It was rejected by Mahler at the Vienna Opera, but was produced in Vienna a few years later at the Volksoper. By the time of the Volksoper production, however, Franz Lehar had turned his attention to operetta, had moved to Vienna, and had begun to make a name for himself with Wiener Frauen (Viennese Women) at the Theater an der Wien, and Der Rastelbinder (The Tinker) at the Carl Theater. Then Franz Lehar set to work on the operetta which was to make him famous throughout the world, Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), which was produced at the Theater an der Wien in 1905.
Seventy years of productions all over the world, in a variety of languages, and as often as not performed by not very talented amateurs, have failed to dim the brilliance of Franz Lehar's score for The Merry Widow, a masterpiece which revitalised the genre of Viennese operetta, whose great founding figure, Johann Strauss II, had died in Vienna six years earlier. The music of The Merry Widow is brilliantly written for the orchestra and the voices, and covers an incredibly wide range of feeling. The Camille-Valencienne duet in Act II, 'Sieh dort den kleinen Pavilion', has an undercurrent of eroticism that makes it Franz Lehar's equivalent of the Tristan und Isolde love duet.
The success of The Merry Widow released a flood of creative energy in Franz Lehar. In less than a year he composed three operettas which ran simultaneously in Vienna: The Prince's Child, Gypsy Love and The Count of Luxembourg. The Count of Luxembourg, the finest of the three, is a continuation of the musical style of The Merry Widow, with elegant and sophisticated characters and those heady, sensuous waltzes which seemed to come so easily to Franz Lehar. From the very first, it was a success with audiences and critics, as was Franz Lehar's next operetta, Eva, for which Franz Lehar accepted from his librettists Willner and Bodanzky a story somewhat more down to earth than the usual operetta plot, a story which claimed to have some contemporary social awareness, or so the Viennese press rumoured in advance. These rumours upset the impresario of the Theater an der Wien who feared he was about to become involved in political arguments. In the event, Franz Lehar was praised for the rich and fascinating sound of his orchestra, and also for the splendid music he had written for the heroine.
After Eva, it seemed for a time that Franz Lehar's run of luck was deserting him. The Ideal Wife (1913) was a re-working of an earlier operetta, and was only moderately successful. It was followed by Endlich Allein (Alone at last), which was unusual in that one entire act consisted of an extended love duet for two young people alone on top of a mountain. It failed to please: critics spoke mockingly of it as Franz Lehar's Tristan and called it pretentious. Franz Lehar himself remained convinced that this second act with its Alpine scenery was one of the finest things he had written, and whenever the question of re-adapting the operetta came up he was always insistent that no change should be made to the structure of that particular act.
Franz Lehar had married, and had bought a splendid villa in Bad Ischl, the attractive spa resort in the Salzkammergut, where the Emperor Franz Josef used to spend every summer at his hunting lodge. During the years of World War I, Franz Lehar and his wife Sophie remained in Vienna, where his next operetta, The Stargazer was produced in 1916. It and its successor, Where the Lark Sings, failed to attract the public. The war was now in its final stages, and the citizens of Vienna were weary and dispirited. The old Emperor died, and so did their favourite comedian Giradi. Public transport broke down, and theatre performances were given only in the afternoons. But, after the war, the Viennese flocked again to the Theater an der Wien for a special occasion. Franz Lehar was fifty, and was celebrating with a new operetta, The Blue Mazurka. On the first night, the lovely old theatre was covered in bouquets and garlands of flowers, and the government and well-wishers from many countries paid tribute to 'the world's most famous Austrian'.
It was while he was composing his next operetta, Frasquita, that Franz Lehar met the great Mozart tenor and Lieder singer, Richard Tauber, whose later career was to be so bound up with his. Franz Lehar played him one or two of the songs from Frasquita, Tauber was enchanted with them, and the following year in Vienna he sang the leading tenor role in the operetta. From then on, every Franz Lehar operetta was written for Richard Tauber, and the Tauberlied in each work became the moment of highest excitement, as the great tenor sang the melodies fashioned to suit his voice, his range, and his temperament. The first work of the composer-singer collaboration was Paganini, whose leading character was the famous 19th-century violinist, and whose big Tauber song was 'Gern nab' ich die Frauen gekiisst' or, in its English version, 'Girls were made to love and kiss'.
Franz Lehar's next operetta, The Tsarevich, was based on a Polish play about a Russian Crown Prince who, to the dismay of those concerned with the future of the monarchy, appears to be allergic to women. In order to accustom him to the company of the opposite sex, the Tsar's ministers introduce him to a girl disguised as a boy. The cure works only too well, and the young couple fall in love. But destiny calls, the Crown Prince cannot be allowed to marry a commoner, and the ending' is inevitably an unhappy one. Franz Lehar, having at first expressed his enthusiasm for the plot, later decided that the idea of the heroine disguised as a boy was indecent, and refused to proceed with the project. The authors then sold the libretto to Mascagni who failed to produce a single bar of music for it. They next offered it to another operetta composer, Eduard Kunnecke, who had already composed the first act when Franz Lehar, persuaded by Tauber, changed his mind and agreed to compose The Tsarevich himself. Kunnecke behaved with great generosity and understanding, handing back the libretto with the remark that it was a pleasure for him to have helped Franz Lehar towards the production of a new masterpiece. And a masterpiece, or at least a great success, it turned out to be. Tauber sang the title-role, and the composer conducted at the Berlin permiere.
The series of Franz Lehar-Tauber operettas continued with Friederike, and Das Land des L'achelns (The Land of Smiles). In box-office terms, The Land of Smiles was Franz Lehar's most successful work since The Merry Widow of a quarter of a century earlier. It was to prove his last great success. His librettists next provided Franz Lehar with a plot concerning an Army captain and his passion for a labourer's wife, a passion which destroys both of them. When Tauber heard the score, his enthusiasm was such that he insisted the work was more opera than operetta, and that it must have its premiere at the Vienna Opera. Franz Lehar at first laughed at the idea, but it began to grow on him. To have one of his works performed in the famous opera house whose director of thirty years earlier, Gustav Mahler, had rejected Franz Lehar's opera, would be the crowning success of his career. And he, the composer, would conduct the famous Vienna Philharmonic, which played, and still plays, for the Opera.
The first night of Giuditta at the Vienna Opera in January 1934 was a glittering affair, though the work proved somewhat uneven, as though unsure of its status. No one then could have guessed that they were witnessing Franz Lehar's last new work for the stage, but the times were changing. Some weeks after the premiere, the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was murdered by the Nazis. Franz Lehar became involved in bothersome litigation with a woman who claimed that the libretto of Giuditta plagiarised a fairy-tale she had written; almost simultaneously his weakness for the ladies led the ageing composer into the hands of blackmailers. As the Nazi menace spread, many of his friends and collaborators left Europe for the New World, Tauber became persona non grata in Germany, and when Hitler marched into Austria he fled to England. Franz Lehar and his Jewish wife Sophie retired to their villa in Bad Ischl where they spent the six years of the war. One day the Gestapo arrived at the villa to take Franz Lehar's wife away, but a frantic phone call from the composer to the local Nazi chief saved her. When the war ended, and American troops arrived in Bad Ischl, they too turned up at the Franz Lehar villa to pay their respects to the seventy-five-year-old composer, and to request his autograph. Late in 1947, Sophie Franz Lehar died. A few months later, just after he had sung a superb Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Richard Tauber died in London. And some months after that, Franz Lehar died in Bad Ischl. His fame as the last of the great composers of Viennese operetta is secure, and The Merry Widow will continue to be produced, well and badly, all over the world, for many years to come.
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