As I mentioned yesterday, tomorrow is EU Talent Day, whatever that is. Nevertheless, we've been marking it all weekend long. With another week of my life about to be lost to legal torments, I said yesterday that EU Talent-wise I was in the mood for some low, vulgar comedy. Twenty-four hours later, I find myself instead partial to pure, translucent beauty - of which there is an increasing dearth in our world.
EU Talent Day was created at some Eurosummit in Budapest, and is observed each year upon the birthday of the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. With due respect to dear old Bartók, he's a bit beyond the remit of our Song of the Week department, so I thought I'd pick something by his fellow Hungarian, Franz Lehár - although, if you're Hungarian, you probably know him as Ferenc Lehár. Or actually, now I come to think of it, Lehár Ferenc. He was born to an Austrian father - a bandsmaster in the imperial military - and a Hungarian mother in what's now Slovakia but was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He spoke nothing but Hungarian till the age of twelve, and added the accent to his surname to conform to the Hungarian style. So that's Magyar enough for me.
The Franz Lehár work I've picked is, officially, a song, but no words sung to it have ever matched its melody, so to me the lyrics always go:
Da da da...
Which is more than enough. Here, from Ian Whitcomb's reconstruction of the musical repertoire of the Titanic, is the "White Star Orchestra". I would not have wanted to be on that ill-starred voyage, but there are worse ways of meeting one's maker than to the strains of this:
The Merry Widow spread from Vienna to Berlin and Hamburg, and then to London and Broadway, on a spectacular opening night at the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1907. Across profound generational shifts in popular taste, it remains to this day the most performed operetta of all time, which at the time of its birth - 1905, December 30th - was a more competitive title than you might think. The Merry Widow greeted the world from the most distinguished musical address in Vienna: the Theater an der Wien. This was where, in 1791, The Magic Flute was premiered, and, in 1874, Die Fledermaus - the theatre's first hit operetta, written by Johann Strauss II, Hofbalmusikdirektor to Emperor Franz Joseph. From Strauss to Millöcker to Franz Lehár, this theatre alone introduced and exported The Gypsy Baron, The Beggar Student, The Countess Maritza, The Count of Luxembourg, The Count of This, The Countess That, The Beggar Baron of the Other - more minor nobility than you'd find in the Almanach de Gotha. Welcome to Mitteleuropa, where it's always springtime in your heart and lilacs bloom in your ventricles, where every widow is merry and every hussar gay, where two hearts can beat in three-quarter time for between five-sixths and seven-eighths of the day - nein? And where every simple peasant girl holds out the possibility of being in reality the Margravine of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz in subtle disguise, and every cheery barrow boy is mayhap the covert Count Tassilo Endrody-Wirttenburg.
But amid the silliest frothiest plots is music of great truth and beauty, and none more beautiful than that accompanying an embassy ball scene in which a Balkan widow is swept into the arms of a minor diplomat. A few years back, after sitting through Cats in German in Vienna, I repaired for a stiff drink to the Ambassador Hotel's Lehár Restaurant, its plush red walls adorned with giant autographed manuscripts of the old boy's many operettas. Outside, it was hard to avoid the merciless gaze of Cameron Mackintosh's Brit megamusical advertising, those Cats eyes and Phantom masks, lurking round every corner like the Third Man. But, in the Ambassador's restaurant, we retreated into old Vienna, and a fragrant echo of Franz Lehár's muted strings danced "The Merry Widow Waltz" across the floor.
Actually, Andrew Lloyd Webber is not that alien a usurper of the tradition of Franz Lehár. Both men have a common hero: Lehár was called "the Puccini of operetta". And, at the dawn of the 20th century, The Merry Widow was one of the few shows to approach internationally the scale of the Lloyd Webber blockbusters at its end: at one point there were over one hundred productions of the show around the world. For historical tidiness, The Merry Widow, opening at the Theater an der Wien in 1905 six years after Johann Strauss II's death, is usually hailed as ushering in Vienna's Silver Age - a term intended to distinguish the exclusively romantic second generation from the comic convolutions of nineteenth-century operetta. As it happens, The Merry Widow itself is still pretty funny. Far from inaugurating the Silver Age, it's almost a premature satire of the later Lehár and his contemporaries.
Take the widow's fictitious Balkan homeland. Operetta has always loved escapism, but in this show it's the escapism they're trying to escape from: anybody who's anybody has skipped the bankrupt one-horse kingdom and is whooping it up in Paris, the widow Hanna to find a husband, Count Danilo (a diplomat at her country's embassy) to pursue more transitory relationships. That's why in all the versions of The Merry Widow Maxim's and the Parisian scenes stay, but their beloved native land goes through what, even by the standards of Central and Eastern Europe, seems an excessive number of name changes: originally, Hanna and Danilo were citizens of Pontevedro (Vienna production, 1905), then Marsovia (London, 1907), Monteblanco (silent film, 1925), Marshovia (film remake, 1934)... It's believed that the London production was prevailed upon to change "Pontevedro" to "Marsovia" because the British Foreign Office did not wish to offend Montenegro, where the Crown Prince happened to be called Danilo and the Royal house shared its family name with another of the operetta's characters. For the record, Montenegro means "Black Mountain", whereas Pontevedro means "Cheerful Bridge", a somewhat less likely name, even for the most ramshackle Balkan statelet. Evidently, by 1925, when the first movie version renamed Pontevedro "Monteblanco", avoiding offence to Montenegro was no longer high on anybody's priorities. The truth is, a Balkan kingdom by any name is a pretext, whose irrelevance is nicely caught by Ernst Lubitsch in the opening of MGM's second and best adaptation: a diligent geographer, peering through a huge magnifying glass, tries in vain to locate Marshovia on a map of Europe. Adrian Ross, lyricist for the first British production, knows the score too, giving Danilo a splendid mock-formal opening which is immediately undercut:
My fatherland, it is for thee
I ought to work from one to three
Though as there isn't much to do
I only come at half-past two...
What counts is the chorus:
I go off to Maxim's
Where fun and frolic beams...
(Incidentally, the above-mentioned Béla Bartók, in whose honor EU Talent Day was established, quotes "Maxim's" in the "Interrupted Intermezzo" of his Concerto for Orchestra.)
A world away from those Ruritanian romances beached on the wilder shores of Mitteleuropa, the Widow revived Viennese theatrical fortunes in Paris, London and New York, selling on a combination of traditional operetta musicality and the loucher morality of the turn-of-the-century's frothier confections. Lehár never pulled off anything like such a hit mélange ever again, because everybody told him the tunes were terrific. Yes, they were, but Merry Widow also had, for a supposedly Silver Age operetta, a very contemporary sensibility. That's why so much product was sold off the back of it: Merry Widow gowns and gloves and broad-brimmed hats and corsets and trains and cocktails and cigarettes filled the store windows of Manhattan in a spin-off campaign unsurpassed until the Brit hits of the eighties. "It was the first musical that had merchandising," Andrew Lloyd Webber once told me. "Cameron Mackintosh has learned everything he knows from it."
Franz Lehár was a multimillionaire within two years of the premiere, and wound up richer than any other Viennese composer ever, which is impressive when you consider those ranks include not only the Strausses but also Beethoven and Mozart. Like much of Andrew Lloyd Webber's, Lehár's music seems to defy the best efforts of lyrics: in both Phantom and Widow the words hang on for a while before being swept off while the tune whirls along on a rollercoaster ride up the register. The lyricists of such diverse confections as "In This Abode of Madame La Mode", "Yes, Sir! That's My Baby" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" have all had a stab at The Merry Widow, without ever quite hitting the target. According to Alan Jay Lerner, author of My Fair Lady and Camelot, "the music predominated so overwhelmingly that there was no room or musical accommodation for lyrical humour or the well-turned rhyme". Lerner was particularly scathing about lines like "Come where the leafy bower lies": "Not a lyric for a tenor with bridge work."
As to the music overwhelming, well, there is something to be said in our unmelodic age for something so rhapsodic and transporting. I love the music of "Vilia", but the words are about a wood nymph, which seems an awful waste of a glorious tune of universal power to stir the heart. A composer has to have an awfully deep well of melody to put that in the same score as the shimmering eroticism of Valencienne and Camille's Act Two duet (Lehár's equivalent of Tristan's Liebestod), and that famous waltz. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were two kinds of waltzes: the Viennese, which hesitated, and the French, which didn't, and was therefore despised by the Viennese as just a three-quarter-time tune. Yet The Merry Widow's is no more or less than a French waltz. It doesn't, musically, hesitate - although it starts tentatively, as befits its principals' first cautious acknowledgment of the possibility of love. Then, almost reluctantly, Danilo and the widow begin to waltz; and, gradually, decorous, restrained formal movement blossoms into a giddily confident, sweeping lyricism. The music occurs at the hinge point of the drama, the point at which the worldly playfulness of previous scenes becomes simply a veil for something deeper, welling, that cannot quite yet be expressed. You're surprised that Lehár and his librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, don't make more of it: by the end of the number, you want Hanna and Danilo to have made love in dance. Perhaps, back in 1905, they didn't know what they'd stumbled upon, but certainly the public got the message. Before The Merry Widow, theatre choreography had meant marches, drills, ballets, big chorus set-pieces. The Widow introduced dancing not by dancers hired to distract but by the actual characters in the drama - and, though neither Lehár nor anyone else ever accomplished it to such dizzying effect as here, The Merry Widow changed the way operetta thought about dance. With this one waltz, Lehár overturned the notion of dance as an expression of community - the martial formations of both courtly and country dancing - and endowed it with a far more alluring image, establishing a line that led through Vernon and Irene Castle (America's pre-eminent dance team in the run-up to the Great War) to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and beyond; with a single melody, Lehár transformed dance from a group social activity to the most potent stage metaphor for intense, intimate romance.
In his 1934 film version, Ernst Lubitsch captures something of that transformation, in the contrast between the grand sweep of the ball with its untold legions of waltzers and Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald dancing alone in each other's arms through empty rooms: the complete absorption of love amid the public revelry. Here's Warner Brothers' approved excerpt of that splendid scene:
Andrew Lloyd Webber is a big fan of the tune. As he once told me, sitting in his garden on a lovely summer's day at Sydmonton, "It's so simple...
Da da da...
"And then what's so clever is that he just does it again...
Da da da...
"And then he varies it ever so slightly...
"You're doing an awful lot of da-dee-da-ing," I said.
"Well, I don't think I really know any of the words," said Lloyd Webber. "What are they?"
From somewhere at the back of my mind, I pulled out the middle section of the lyric:
Ev'ry touch of fingers
Tells me you are mine...
"Well, if that's what the words are like," Lloyd Webber said, "I'm glad I don't know them."
Ev'ry touch of fingers? Ugh! But no lyricist has ever managed to articulate the irresistible, heady perfume of the tune. Adrian Ross opts for:
Though I say not
What I may not
Let you know...
- which is just treading water. Here's Christopher Hassall, for the later Sadler's Wells production with the great Aussie soprano June Bronhill that became a smash and saved that theatre:
Strings are playing
Hear them saying
'Love me true'...
But it's an external image, and the power of Lehár's music is not that it's being sawed by an orchestra but that it seems to have been conjured from within by the emotional moment. Even Lorenz Hart, who gave us "My Funny Valentine" and "It Never Entered My Mind", is unable to rise above:
Now or never
I love you...
The original German, by the way, is "Hab mich lieb" - "Love me" - or on its second incarnation "Bitte hab mich lieb" - "Please love me", which is to my ear rather better than "Love me true." Waltzes are deceptively tricky for lyric-writers. The logic of the tune demands lots of rhymes, yet the feminine rhymes ("say not"/"may not", "playing"/"saying", "never"/"forever") usually wind up sounding obtrusive and the sentiments pat. Lehár's music is actually conveying rather complex emotions: two people, in love long ago, now wordly and cynical, rediscovering romance and then, falteringly, surrendering to it; it's not a hesitation waltz, but a waltz that seduces you away from hesitation. It's a spare melody, a distillation of the essence of melody: aside from the first low note, it's all very step-wise, including the trio of dotted minims that conclude the phrase and simply step down the scale as if it's something a middle-school kid could write. Hanna's answering section is notey, fluttery, a heart beating faster, on the brink of giving in. The whole sequence is a melody which trembles with restraint and is, technically, well within the reach of English lyrics.
Why then does it resist words? The traditional emotional trajectory of the American musical can be seen in any Astaire-Rogers picture: they talk; and then, when they reach an emotional point beyond speech, they sing; and then, when they reach an emotional point beyond song, they dance. In this scene in The Merry Widow, Lehár makes that journey by music alone. This isn't an operatic generality: it's specific, it arises from those characters in that situation, and it develops those characters and advances that situation. In the popular musical theatre of 1905, it was without precedent - a fine piece of music, but the finest piece of dramatically effective music. Most of us will be lucky to find a relationship which merits such a rhapsody, but aspiration is an important part of popular music's potency. As a fellow who makes his living from words it has always bothered me that no one has ever been able to set a lyric that comes anywhere near the transporting quality of the tune. Perhaps Lehár understood that at the inception, for in the original production, one notes, the principals' first stab at the chorus is to hum it. Perhaps, like Andrew Lloyd Webber and me in the garden all those years ago, that's all you need. Perhaps there are some expressions of love so distilled to the essence words are superfluous. So I have put aside my ambition to hear a worthy "Merry Widow Waltz" lyric, and love it as is. When it comes to vocal performances, for example, I have always enjoyed the way Plácido Domingo, as the years roll by with an endless procession of widows, acts the role. Here he is in Rio a half-decade back with Ana María Martínez:
I said at the beginning that, contemplating a week in an American courtroom, I wanted something of exquisite beauty to mitigate the ugliness ahead. But, of course, the line between beauty and ugliness is a fine one, as Alfred Hitchcock understood in Shadow of a Doubt when he made "The Merry Widow Waltz" the musical theme that binds a young niece to her favorite uncle, a seducer and killer of widows. Watching the film, you're surprised Lehár let him use it that way.
But, of course, it was 1943.
The soul of Viennese operetta died with Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, or at any rate with the Habsburg Empire five years later. So The Merry Widow is both the last waltz, a final fling for the ancien régime, and simultaneously the first great theatre courtship in dance, the first modern waltz.
How broad was its appeal? So broad that I often use it to make a point about the limitations of pop culture. Today, the western world likes to reassure itself that its cultural exports - movies and CDs and TV shows - will eventually tame the Islamic fevers. When a rioting Muslim in Clichy-sous-Bois turns out to be listening to gangsta rap, we congratulate ourselves that he's already succumbing to the siren song of the Great Satan. Yet over a century ago The Merry Widow was simultaneously an American pop culture phenomenon and Hitler's favorite operetta. Again and again, the teenage Adolf would return to the gallery at the Theater an der Wien and sit rapt as the orchestra played "Vilia" and the "Waltz" and all the rest. His love for the show never diminished, notwithstanding that both librettists were Jewish, as was the composer's wife. And a fat lot of good a shared taste for Franz Lehár did the world - or those Jewish librettists. Under the Reich, Lehár was Hitler's favorite musician and thus untouchable, and as for his wife, whom the Gestapo periodically moved to arrest, he managed to get Frau Lehár formally reclassified by the Third Reich as an Ehrenarienin - an "honorary Aryan".
What does that actually mean? It means, joked Hitler to Lehár, that "she's safe as long as I live". The missus took the joke seriously enough to keep a cyanide capsule with her at all times.
The composer's colleagues weren't so lucky. Lehár's leading man in The Merry Widow was a Jew, Louis Treumann. He was murdered with his wife at Theresienstadt at virtually the exact moment the composer was presenting Hitler with a souvenir programme of the original 1905 production young Adolf had so adored, a programme whose cover showed Treumann as Count Danilo. Lehár's librettist on The Merry Widow, Viktor Léon, had his property confiscated after the Anschluss in 1938. Understanding what was coming next, he went into hiding, and so an octogenarian who had contributed so much to the gaiety of Vienna through his partnerships with Strauss and Heuberger and Lehár starved to death in a garret in 1940. Another Lehár librettist, Fritz Löhner-Beda, was dispatched to Dachau, Buchenwald and finally Auschwitz, where he was beaten to death in 1942, the same year his Land of Smiles was successfully revived in Vienna, with Lehár himself conducting. To the end, Beda expected his partner to intercede and save him. But Lehár either couldn't help, or wouldn't help. Recalling the awards the old man had accepted from the Nazis, Alan Jay Lerner said: "To this day, when I am transported by the music of Franz Lehár, my glass of champagne is rimmed with aloes."
Which is, of course, a perfect operetta image. Whatever the truth, after Lehár's death there was no more champagne. In removing the Jews from Mitteleuropean showbiz, the Nazis hastened the end of operetta, and silenced Vienna's musical voice. Those crowds of happy Austrians hailing Hitler's entry into Vienna were cheering the death of their own culture.
~Mark's book A Song For The Season contains the stories behind many beloved songs from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" - and don't forget, when you order through the SteynOnline bookstore, Mark will be happy to autograph it to your merriest widow. Also: if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, remember to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member pricing on that book and over forty other Steyn Store products.
For any merry widows anxious to find their own Count Danilo, he may well be waiting for you on the second annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, and your eyes will meet somewhere on Alaska's beautiful Inside Passage to Ketchikan and Glacier Bay. We'll be sailing from Vancouver this September, and, among the attractions, we can promise you a special live-music edition of our Song of the Week. Cabins are going extremely fast, and, as with most travel plans, the price is more favorable and the accommodations more congenial the earlier you book.