Franz Lehar (30 April 1870 – 24
October 1948) was an Austro-Hungarian composer. He is mainly known
for his operettas, of which the most successful and best known is
The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe).
Lehár was born in the northern part of Komárom, Kingdom of Hungary,
Austria-Hungary (now Komárno, Slovakia), the eldest son of Franz
Lehár (senior) (1838–1898), an Austrian bandmaster in the Infantry
Regiment No. 50 of the Austro-Hungarian Army and Christine Neubrandt
(1849–1906), a Hungarian woman from a family of German descent. He
grew up speaking only Hungarian until the age of 12. Later he put a
diacritic above the "a" of his father's name "Lehar" to indicate the
vowel in the corresponding Hungarian orthography.
While his younger brother Anton
entered cadet school in Vienna to become a professional officer,
Franz studied violin at the Prague Conservatory, where his violin
teacher was Antonín Bennewitz, but was advised by Antonín Dvořák to
focus on composition. However, the Conservatory's rules at that time
did not allow students to study both performance and composition,
and Bennewitz and Lehár senior exerted pressure on Lehár to take his
degree in violin as a practical matter, arguing that he could study
composition on his own later. Lehár followed their wishes, against
his will, and aside from a few clandestine lessons with Zdeněk
Fibich he was self-taught as a composer. After graduation in 1888 he
joined his father's band in Vienna, as assistant bandmaster. Two
years later he became bandmaster at Losoncz, East Slovakia, making
him the youngest bandmaster in the Austro-Hungarian Army at that
time, but he left the army and joined the navy. With the k.u.k.
Kriegsmarine he was first Kapellmeister at Pola from 1894 to 1896,
resigning in the later year when his first opera, Kukuschka (later
reworked as Tatjana in 1906), premiered in Leipzig. It was only a
middling success and Lehár eventually rejoined the army, with
service in the garrisons at Trieste, Budapest (1898) and finally
Vienna from 1899 to 1902. In 1902 he became conductor at the
historic Vienna Theater an der Wien, where his operetta Wiener
Frauen was performed in November of that year.
He is most famous for his operettas
– the most successful of which is The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe)
– but he also wrote sonatas, symphonic poems and marches. He also
composed a number of waltzes (the most popular being Gold und Silber,
composed for Princess Pauline von Metternich's "Gold and Silver"
Ball, January 1902), some of which were drawn from his famous
operettas. Individual songs from some of the operettas have become
standards, notably "Vilja" from The Merry Widow and "You Are My
Heart's Delight" ("Dein ist mein ganzes Herz") from The Land of
Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns).
Lehár was also associated with the
operatic tenor Richard Tauber, who sang in many of his operettas,
beginning with a revival of his 1910 operetta Zigeunerliebe (de) in
1920 and then Frasquita (de) in 1922, in which Lehár once again
found a suitable post-war style. Lehár made a brief appearance in
the 1930 film adaptation The Land of Smiles starring Tauber. Between
1925 and 1934 he wrote six operettas specifically for Tauber's
voice. By 1935 he decided to form his own publishing house,
Glocken-Verlag (Publishing House of the Bells), to maximize his
personal control over performance rights to his works.
Lehár and the Third Reich
Lehár's relationship with the Nazi regime was an uneasy one. He had
always used Jewish librettists for his operas and had been part of
the cultural milieu in Vienna which included a significant Jewish
contingent. Further, although Lehár was Roman Catholic, his wife,
Sophie (née Paschkis) had been Jewish before her conversion to
Catholicism upon marriage, and this was sufficient to generate
hostility towards them personally and towards his work. Hitler
enjoyed Lehár's music, and hostility diminished across Germany after
Goebbels's intervention on Lehár's part. In 1938 Mrs. Lehár was
given the status of "Ehrenarierin" (honorary Aryan by marriage).
Nonetheless, attempts were made at least once to have her deported.
The Nazi regime was aware of the uses of Lehár's music for
propaganda purposes: concerts of his music were given in occupied
Paris in 1941. Even so, Lehár's influence was limited. It is said
that he tried personally to secure Hitler's guarantee of the safety
of one of his librettists, Fritz Löhner-Beda, but he was not able to
prevent the murder of Beda in Auschwitz-III.
On 12 January 1939 and 30 April
1940 Lehár had personally received awards by Hitler in Berlin and
Vienna, including the Goethe medal. On Hitler's birthday in 1938
Lehár had given him as a special gift a red maroquin leather volume
in commemoration of the 50th performance of The Merry Widow.
He died aged 78 in 1948 in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, and was buried
His younger brother Anton became
the administrator of his estate, promoting the popularity of Franz
- He was elected an honorary citizen of Sopron in 1940.
- In 1940 Hitler awarded him the Goethe-Medaille für Kunst und
- There is a street in Vienna named after him. Additionally, several
towns in the Netherlands have named streets after him (e.g. in The
Hague, Leidsche Rijn, Utrecht, Eindhoven and Tilburg). Also, there
is a street in Sarajevo named after him.
In 1929 and 1934, Lehár had conducted for Odeon records The Land of
Smiles and Giuditta, starring Richard Tauber, Vera Schwarz and
Jarmila Novotná. A 1942 Vienna broadcast of his operetta Paganini
conducted by the composer has survived, starring soprano, Esther
Réthy and tenor, Karl Friedrich (de). A 1942 Berlin radio production
of Zigeunerliebe with Herbert Ernst Groh, conducted by Lehár, also
In 1947, Lehár conducted the
Tonhalle Orchester Zürich in a series of 78-rpm recordings for
English Decca (released in the U.S. by London Records) of overtures
and waltzes from his operettas. The recordings had remarkable sound
for their time because they were made using Decca's Full Frequency
Range Recording process, one of the first commercial high fidelity
techniques. These recordings were later issued on LP (in 1969 on
Decca eclipse ECM 2012 and reprocessed stereo on ECS 2012) and CD. A
compilation of his recordings has been released by Naxos Records.
Following the collapse of the
Berlin Wall, a set of discs recording the 1939 Saarbrucken concert
of Lehár's works by German State Transmitter Saarbrucken conducted
by Franz Lehár himself was discovered in East German state archives.
This was released on CDs by Cpo-Musikproduktion in 2000.
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