A Vision: My Youth (1907)
By Morten Solvik
Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
For all of the fame he achieved in his lifetime, Franz Lehár (1870-1948) remained something of a frustrated artist. His most famous composition, The Merry Widow (1905), ranks as arguably the most successful operetta ever written. Many more stage works also enjoyed widespread acclaim during the composer’s life. Indeed, his music brought him considerable wealth and made him a celebrity far beyond the borders of his native Austria. Nevertheless, Lehár could not escape the feeling that his accomplishments were not taken seriously, that despite his popularity – indeed, perhaps because of it – his rank as a composer would never rise above that of a talented entertainer.
Lehár objected strongly to this prejudice and, for a time at least, sought to convince the public of his stature as a serious artist. In an autobiographical essay published in 1907 he defended the consummate skill required in composing a successful operetta and made a special point of highlighting the strength of his musical background. In casting the story of his life, Lehár invoked the familiar travails of genius: a childhood prodigy, who, as the son of a military bandmaster, grew up in many corners of the Austrian Empire and was sent off for schooling at the Conservatory in Prague. Here he was misunderstood, forced to hone his considerable skills as a violinist while inwardly devoted to composition. Private lessons from the highly respected Czech composer, Zdenek Fibich, subsequent contact with Dvořák and even attention from Brahms held out the promise of a bright future for the teenager. There followed years of hardship: toiling with trivial duties as a military bandmaster while in his precious spare time working on his serious compositions. So convinced was he of his first major work, an opera entitled Kukuschka, that he laid aside his baton and uniform for the life of a freelance composer. The opera enjoyed only limited success and he was soon back in the military, simply to earn his keep. Only upon turning to operetta, so ends the story, did he finally gain the recognition he deserved.
It can hardly be a coincidence that a few months prior to the writing of that essay, Lehár made his debut as a composer of symphonic music with the first performance of A Vision. The choice of venue for the tone poem had symbolic meaning, for the premiere served as the curtain-raiser to the 400th performance of The Merry Widow, which – astonishingly – had its first performance barely fourteen months earlier. By presenting his operetta audience with a work from a weightier genre, Lehár was clearly trying to make a point. As a reviewer declared in open admiration of the piece and in tacit agreement with the low regard for operetta: “We know he is capable of writing more than dance music.”
That Lehár would choose this work to lay claim to the stature of a composer of broad talents reveals a noteworthy attempt at grappling with his musical identity. Research for this program note has uncovered that A Vision was originally conceived as a work entitled “Huldigungs-Ouverture” and composed in 1900. The music is reminiscent of the self-consciously Slavic composers that, by Lehár’s own admission, had played such an important role in the formation of his early musical training. Little wonder that the delicate orchestration, festive rhythms and folkish melodic gestures of Lehár’s work contain more than a hint of Dvořák‘s Slavonic Dances or Smetana’s Ma Vlast. For Lehár, this ‘vision of youth’ (as indicated in a later title for the work) no doubt symbolized his efforts to return to his roots as a serious musician.
For audiences it was a different matter. A Vision made no lasting impression. And while Lehár may have made his point, he had not altered expectation. The public continued to demand the catchy melodies, attractive characters, and frivolous nostalgia that he had been able to give them with such finesse. Although from now on essentially free to compose as he desired, success had made Lehár a captive of the musical style that had propelled him to fame. While managing to bring considerable sophistication to his operettas, he did not succeed in breaking the mold of his public persona. The composer of substance, like the past he so ingeniously recalled in his works, had been left behind.