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The phone call that would change the course of light opera forever

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Viennese composer: Franz Lehár

Viennese composer: Franz Lehár

Viennese composer: Franz Lehár

They do say that Christmas seems to come earlier every year. In our own musical way, we on RTÉ lyric fm try to keep the season special by holding back on the festive tunes till December 8.

After that, of course, there won't be a hall left undecked, and you-know-who will have gone down in history once more. (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in case you were wondering!)

Then, the spotlight will fall on Vienna as the Austrian capital switches on the soundtrack to the turn of the year.

There's something wonderfully positive about the tunes that filled the air there across the second half of the 19th Century and on into the 20th.

This was extremely popular music, but not serious enough for some. For years, Vienna's principal orchestra, the Philharmonic, wouldn't go near it.

I suppose it would have been a bit like asking a symphony orchestra to take on Please, Please Me or She Loves You when the Beatles were topping the charts.

But then, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were eventually recognised across the spectrum.

In the same way, the realisation would have dawned that the Strauss family had indeed created music of quality that deserved to be performed by the greatest orchestra in the land.

There's another Viennese composer who came along a little later who was just as influential as the family Strauss in his area of expertise - light opera.

Franz Lehár wasn't actually from Vienna at all. He was born in a town on the Danube, all right - Komáron, which these days is half in Hungary and half in Slovakia.

His father was a military man, a bandmaster who wrote marches and dances. Franz followed him into music, majoring in the violin at the conservatory in Prague.

His aim was to carve out a career as a performer, but he got a piece of advice from the man who would become the music school's head of composition. Focus on writing, he counselled young Lehár. That's where your talents lie.

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We've Antonin Dvorák to thank for the change of direction that delivered a whole host of delights, the most dazzling being his very first operetta, The Merry Widow.

How he got involved in that is an amazing tale of happenstance.

Like his father, Lehár had been in the army, called up in his late teens.

Like father, like son: Franz led the band, and wrote military marches for them to play.

Ending up in Vienna, he was right at the heart of things in Europe's musical capital.

He started making a name for himself as a latter-day Strauss. The sumptuous Gold and Silver waltz, his best known, dates from this time.

But he wasn't a major player in terms of musical drama. The top man around was Richard Heuberger, Der Opernball was his big success.

Enter the two librettists who had done the book for Strauss's Wiener Blut.

Viktor Léon and Leo Stein had a new project on the go. Heuberger was the obvious choice to write the music.

But Léon and Stein were none too impressed by his efforts. Their rich Balkan widow - pursued in Paris by all sorts of suitors, before ending up with an old flame from back home - needed better songs to sing.

They were going nowhere when Lehár's name came up.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, they gave him some lyrics and asked him to set them to music.

Lehár's audition involved playing what he'd written down a telephone line. Léon and Stein were impressed.

The music flowed - Lippen Schweigen, the Vilja song, the Merry Widow Waltz, and that paean to Parisian night life, You'll Find Me at Maxim's.

The whole show is an absolute delight. And to think if the telephone hadn't been invented by 1905, there might never have been a Merry Widow at all.

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