If anyone should be dubbed the “composer laureate” of Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand), it is Franz Lehár (1870–1948). Not only because his Where the Lark Sings was one of Ayn Rand’s spiritual lifelines in her blackest years in Soviet Russia—but also because of the guiltless sensuality and romantic-realistic sense of life of his most famous operetta, The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe; 1905, the year of Rand’s birth).
In the Lehár biography Gold and Silver, Bernard Grun writes: “The complete novelty of The Merry Widow lies in the frankly erotic nature of its subject. … The hundred melodies in the score sing of nothing but desires, impulses, passions, embraces and kisses.” One commentator was moved to say, “It is so shocking it does not belong on any decent stage!”
Where his contemporaries presented farcical social types, Lehár sought greater realism and individualism. “I want to write music for and around human beings: their hearts and souls, their emotions and passions, their joy and sadness.” The exultant sense of life that sustained the young Ayn Rand has a counterpart in what Edward Greenfield described as Widow’s “atmosphere of pre-1914 gaiety and brilliance which leaves you heady with exhilaration.”
When this masterpiece appeared, the products of amateurs dominated the field and pundits had pronounced operetta dead. Lehár revived the form by means of vast expertise and a revolutionary originality. “In the score … he tried all possible tonal devices, however bold and hazardous. … The violins, divided three- and fourfold, sang at heights never reached before in this type of music—or kept up there their alluring harmonies … the flutes scurried across the pages of the score, joining up with the glissando of the harp. … [T]he brass, instead of blaring, was arranged for soft velvety sounds. All these effects gave the music its surprisingly different style, and played their part in lifting the genre operetta from the gemütliche old Viennese into the universal and international sphere.”
But the strongest reason why Lehár deserves the attention of Objectivists is his melodic genius. Ayn Rand invested great importance in this aspect of music. She knew, and it is well recognized, that good melodies convey an impression of logic and inevitability, which has surprising emotional power—they exploit a reason-emotion synergy. Lehár displays his effortless command of this art in practically every one of Widow’s numbers. In Grun’s words, “they form a single intoxicating flow of musical ideas of sublimest stamp.” (The “Merry Widow Waltz” is perhaps too familiar; try the Act I Finale or Act II Opening. I recommend the German version, especially Angel recording 3630 B/L with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Lovro von Matacic conducting.)
“The man in the street may love The Merry Widow,” observed Ernest Newman, “but the musician, in addition to loving it, admires and wonders at it, so fresh and varied is the melodic invention in it, so deft, for all their economy, the harmonisation and the scoring.”
Great tunes were less frequent in his later works, and lightheartedness was to give way to a more “serious” tone. But The Merry Widow is Franz Lehár’s undeniable claim to the hearts of those who share the sense of life that fueled Ayn Rand.
© 2001 Rodney Rawlings