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Music: The Count of Luxemburg

3 minute read

“Americans,” Franz Lehar once complained, “know me only as the creator of The Merry Widow”

But how well they knew The Merry Widow! In 1907, the Widow’s gay Viennese charm had captured Broadway. Merry Widow waltzes and Merry Widow hats swept the U.S. And the U.S. has pretty well stayed swept ever since.

Of his more than 30 operettas, Lehar’s own favorite was the Count of Luxemburg. “My friends often say,” he wrote, “that I am like [the] Count of Luxemburg; they are perhaps not altogether wrong . . . I have always enjoyed life and society, the conversation of pretty women and witty men . . .”

Lehar’s father, a regimental bandmaster in the old imperial Austro-Hungarian Army, wanted him to be a musician, too. So he had worked hard at the Prague Conservatory, studying the violin. When old Johannes Brahms came to Prague, young Franz had fired up his courage, submitted two of his own youthful sonatas to the great composer. After glancing through them, Brahms told him: “Hang your fiddle on the wall and become a composer.”

When success first came, Lehar was 35 —broad, bluff and charming. But he had had to fight for his laurels. The first rehearsals of The Merry Widow in Vienna seemed so bad that he had to plead with the director, “Let us at least open.” Its Vienna success was instantaneous, and soon Paris, Berlin, London and New York were whistling the famous waltz. But the world never gave Lehar the serious reputation he thought he deserved. He wrote: “Most people are inclined to regard operettas as something inferior—entertaining no doubt, and full of easily remembered tunes—but distinctly lower in the scale than other musical works.” His own more serious works—sonatas, symphonic poems, marches—did not catch the public’s fancy.

He never went to the U.S., but he was scornful about the way American theaters adapted his works. “I compose music about the city I love,” he said. “If you want to understand it in New York, you must play it as a Viennese operetta, not as musical comedy.”

Adolf Hitler had proposed some tinkering with The Merry Widow too. He used to see it as often as three times in a month, but he wanted Lehar to “modernize” it. Hitler’s admiration cooled, and later Lehar was put under house arrest in Vienna because he had refused to abandon his wife, a “non-Aryan.” At war’s end, the composer fared hardly better with the Russians. When his wife Sophie told Red army soldiers that her husband’s papers and manuscripts were priceless, they snorted “Capitalist!” and destroyed all she had.

Last year, in the luxurious hotel in Zurich where they had gone to live, Sophie Lehar died. At first the broken and ailing Franz spent his days and nights sitting motionless in a chair in his room. Last month, when he was given a blood transfusion at his Bad Ischl home near Salzburg, word spread that he had died. Said Franz: “Hardly ever before was there a man whom the press was so eager to eliminate.” But his strength was indeed ebbing and, one day this week, at 78, he followed Sophie.

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