Franz Lehár (1870-1948) and The Merry Widow
Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár is famous for his operetta Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow), one of the most beloved and long-lasting works in its genre. Hitler referred to the operetta as ‘the equal of the finest opera,’ and it is rumoured to be the only piece of music the dictator would play during the last two years of the war. Lehár and his operetta remain untarnished by their association with Hitler, largely because the composer kept a low profile during the war and died shortly afterwards. The Merry Widow is still popular worldwide.
Franz Lehár was born in Komárom, Hungary (now Komárno, Slovakia) into a musical family. He studied the violin from a young age and entered the Prague Conservatory at age twelve, where he was encouraged by Antonín Dvořák to pursue composition. His early output includes dances, marches and operettas. His operetta Kukuška was not received particularly well at its premiere in Leipzig in 1896, and Lehár moved to Vienna shortly thereafter.
In 1905 he was asked to write the music for The Merry Widow to a German libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein and based on a 1861 French comedy play by Henri Meilhac. The Merry Widow was immediately successful in Vienna, ushering in a new era of Viennese operetta. Lehár used waltz music, traditional Eastern European folk and the Parisian cancan to revitalise the operetta as a genre.
The work was an international success – and a personal financial success for Lehár, though he was unable to repeat the phenomenon. Some musicologists have argued that this was partly because The Merry Widow had fortuitously appeared just after the previous generation of operetta composers had died. Lehár’s works in the next few years include Zigeunerliebe (Gypsy Love) and the 1916 operetta Die Sterngucker (The Stargazer), written with librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda. Lehár found renewed success after the First World War when he began to write for Austrian tenor Richard Tauber. His grand opera, Giuditta (1934), was well-received, but failed to reach the heights of The Merry Widow and Lehár did not write any new serious works after this; operetta was already falling out of favour.
Lehár stayed in Austria during the Second World War, refusing to involve himself with politics but benefitting financially from Hitler’s promotion of The Merry Widow. Lehár’s wife Sophie was Jewish but Hitler ensured that she was protected as Ehrenarierin (honorary Aryan by marriage), though it did not stop her from being investigated. Many of Lehár’s musical collaborators and librettists – including Fritz Löhner-Beda and Viktor Léon – were also Jewish. The operetta was staged multiple times in Germany and the occupied countries, using generous state subsidies. In 1943 Hitler invited friends to watch a production of The Merry Widow in Munich, and Lehár gave him a signed copy of its original 1905 programme as a birthday present. The programme featured a picture of Louis Treumann, the tenor that originated the role of Danilo. In a cruel twist, Treumann had just been murdered in Theresienstadt.
After the war Lehár maintained a low profile. ‘My conscience is clear,’ he said, ‘my Merry Widow was Hitler’s favourite operetta. That’s not my fault.’ The extent to which Lehár enjoyed the associated with Hitler is unclear. He was apolitical and it is unlikely that he was antisemitic. Nevertheless, he benefitted financially from performances of The Merry Widow in the Third Reich and did not choose to leave the country, despite his wife’s dangerous situation. Lehár died in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, in 1948.
Though the connection between Hitler and The Merry Widow is not widely known – certainly not when compared with Wagner, for example – quotes from its score have been used by other composers, alluding to its association with the Nazi regime. Shostakovich quotes the operetta in his Leningrad symphony: a pastiche of Danilo’s song ‘Da geh' ich zu Maxim’ represents the German invasion of Leningrad. In Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Shadow of a Doubt the soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin uses quotes from Lehár’s ‘Merry Widow Waltz’ as a motif for the film’s murderous antagonist.
By Abaigh McKee
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Schwarm, B. and Cantoni, L. (2017) ‘The Merry Widow: Operetta by Lehár,’ Encyclopedia Britannica. www.britannica.com/topic/The-Merry-Widow-operetta-by-Lehar
Lamb, A. and Dennis, R. J. (2002) ‘Die Lustige Witwe,’ Grove Music Online. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000003026
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