The fall of the operetta

Die Dollarprizessin poster

Edmund Eysler and Leo Fall are two operetta composers who along with Oscar Straus and Leo Ascher seemed to have vanished entirely from the repertoire. Whether this is the nature of operetta, which tends to reflect situations and humour from the date of its composition, or because once banned by the III Reich, it never found its way back into the canon of light musical theatre, is difficult to say. As Kevin Clarke describes in a fascinating catalogue article accompanying a fairly recent operetta exhibition at Vienna’s ‘Theater Museum’, Hitler’s ersatz operettas imposed by his censors to replace much-loved works by Jewish composers introduced an artificially sweet sensibility, removing much racy humour. When once banned works were re-introduced after the Nazi defeat, the post-war mood held to the same winsome sentimentality perpetuated by the III Reich. It meant that most previously popular works were re-staged in versions that were intrinsically un-representative of their original concepts. The sauciness of pre-Nazi days vanished until the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s, by which time operetta was seen as embarrassingly passé and out of touch.

Leo Fall, however, died in 1925 – years before the Nazi regime. His works had already started to slide out of the repertoire in favour of Lehár, Kálmán, Abraham and Benatzky. Indeed, it was one of the reasons that Erich Korngold saw fit to up-date two of them: ‘The Divorced Woman’ and ‘Roses from Florida’. Operetta – as mentioned in Zuckerkandl’s article on ‘The relevance of modern Opera’ elsewhere on this page – was always ‘contemporary’. This meant that with Fall’s death in 1925, his works (apart from the Korngold ‘up-dates’) were unable to provide the witty social commentary of operettas from the late 1920s and early 1930s.

It is astonishing that most of the prominent operetta composers were born between 1870 and 1885 – with Paul Abraham being the exception and the youngest, born in 1892. A huge number were Jewish, or at the very least, married to Jews. (Including the much loved Johann Strauss whose flame was kept alive by his Jewish widow Adele) Indeed, not only was Lehár married to a Jew, all of his librettists were Jewish. Even some of Hitler’s favourite operettas such as ‘Schwarzwaldmädel’ (‘The Black Forest Maid’) by Leon Jessel and Edmund Eysler’s ‘Die Gold’ne Meisterin’ (‘The Golden Mistress’) were composed by Jews. Eysler managed to remain in Vienna during the Hitler years – protected by relatives; Oscar Straus is best remembered amongst the English speaking world for his ‘Chocolate Soldier’. Less familiar is the fact that he introduced Arnold Schoenberg to Ernst von Wolzogen, where Schoenberg became music director of Wolzogen’s Berlin cabaret ‘Überbrettl’in 1901. Straus would remain the Überbrettl’s house-composer meaning that years later in Vienna, Schoenberg would turn his back on him with the remark that he ‘did not deal with operetta composers’ – a bizarre view given the amount of light music Schoenberg arranged and used didactically with his pupils. Straus went to Hollywood, where like Kálmán, his success was well below expectations given their established profiles in Berlin and Vienna. Leo Ascher – today totally forgotten – but composer of the hit ‘Das Lercherl von Hernals’ (‘The little Lark from Hernals’) was arrested during the Kristallnacht-pogroms of November 1938.

He barely recovered from the experience and died in exile in New York in 1942. Paul Abraham survived post-Hitler exile as a bar pianist in Havana and New York. He committed suicide shortly upon returning to Germany after the war. Robert Stolz took the ethical decision to exclude himself from Nazi musical life, despite the fact that he was one of the few who could present a fairly clean Aryan ‘bill-of-health’. Like Stolz, Benatzky went into exile for political reasons, but also out of concern for his Jewish wife. Adele Strauss’s daughter would end up in the Nazi gas chambers while Franz Lehár kept his head down, maintaining later that in order to save his Jewish wife, he had to avoid intervening in the eventual murder in Auschwitz of his librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda.

There is something transitory, even disposable about the music and content of operetta. Korngold not only updated Leo Fall’s ‘Divorced Woman’ and Fall’s unfinished ‘Roses from Florida’ but also Johann Strauss’s ‘Fledermaus’, ‘A Night in Venice’ and ‘Cagliostro in Vienna’ along with Offenbach’s ‘La belle Hélène’. The dramatic material (as the English speaking world knows from endless Gilbert and Sullivan revivals) was plastic and easy to up-date – the music timeless, though tending towards the ‘generic’. Operetta waltzes could easily start to sound the same were it not for the funny and often quite raunchy texts that were attached. The popularity of now forgotten operettas can hardly be exaggerated. Eysler’s ‘’Lachender Bräutigam’ (‘The Laughing Bridegroom’) would clock up around 200 performances a year from 1913 – 1921. In fact, this represents the approximate run of even the most profitable works. After 8 or 9 years, they simply weren’t speaking to contemporary audiences and the punch-lines of all of their jokes were over-familiar.

For reasons of historic interest, I’ve translated from the ‘Neue Freie Presse’ an ‘homage’ by Edmund Eylser to his deceased friend Leo Fall published on February 6th, 1933:

“It would be around this time that my old friend and comrade, Leo Fall would have celebrated his 60th birthday. Unhappy fate has deprived me of being able to celebrate this event with the joy we both would so have treasured. As a result, the only recompense I can offer is to recall our many happy and productive years of deepest, mutual friendship.

“I was only 15 when I got to know Leo Fall, and he was 16. He studied at Vienna’s conservatory and I attended a local high school. It didn’t take long to discover that we hit it off. As he was mischievous and I was always a bit timid, he decided that we were a perfect partnership. He was always amusing and full of exuberance, even while going through continuously rough times. His father was a military band-master in Lemberg and couldn’t afford to give his son much in the way of pocket money. For this reason, Leo became a frequent guest in our home – his sunny nature soon won over my parents, and in due course, he felt totally at home with my family; indeed, he was soon preparing his favourite dishes and with his enormous appetite, encouraging us all to ‘dig in’. After every lunch, he went straight to the piano and played and played – including a number of his own compositions. I also listened transfixed to his performances and it wasn’t long before I was convinced that I too would dedicate my life to music. Of course, there was any number of obstacles to overcome. My father had taken the decision – quite on his own – that I should become an engineer. But Leo was convinced of my talent and on my behalf persuaded my mother to allow me to attend the conservatory. Only after a conference with the entire family did Leo manage to win them over and let me pursue my musical ambitions.

“There followed years of assiduous study: Leo Fall studied with Professor Robert Fuchs [as did Eysler] and I recall a number of very beautiful, exceptional Lieder he composed from that time. They were even performed in the conservatory with enormous success from the yet-to-become famous Paula Mark – who was also a student. Fall soon became one of the favourites of the conservatory’s faculty and was given a position as piano teacher for which he received the sum per lesson of one Ducat – a fee that was normally only paid to full professors. With this income, he should have been free of the harshest existential difficulties. But what did he do? As soon as he felt that a pupil was talentless, he sent them home and told them not to come back. I was shocked by his financial recklessness and took him to task. His answer was simple: ‘I’d rather starve than teach music to people who have no talent’.

“After he completed his studies, Fall became a house-conductor at the Mannheim Opera where he composed and had performed two one-act operas called ‘Parole’ and ‘Irrlicht’ [‘Will o’ the Wisp’]. He returned to Vienna’s ‘Theater an der Wien’ in 1905 – two years after the success of my own ‘Bruder Straubinger’ with his own operetta ‘Der Rebell’.

“This was, however, thanks to its dreadful libretto, a total flop. The fact that the music was theatrical and solid was proven when later he used most of it in ‘Der liebe Augustin’ – which became a great success. The conviction that Fall was a first rate theatre composer is further demonstrated by the fact that the powerful Wilhelm Karczag, director of ‘Theater an der Wien’ managed to secure the rights to the book ‘Dollarprinzessin’ for him. This was to be the start of a chain of international successes.

“It’s unnecessary to write about his many subsequent triumphs. His melodic brilliance and tremendous wit have now entered into common parlance and ownership. I should probably only mention that Leo Fall considered the ‘Fidele Bauer’ [‘The Faithful Farmer’] his best work.

“Fall was possessed of tremendous creative drive. If he suddenly hit a productive wall he became unpleasant and grumpy. I’d always have to cheer him up and say ‘Come on! Look Leo: it may be stuck for today but tomorrow it’ll just flow and everyone will be wild with enthusiasm.’ He’d laugh and reply, ‘Mundi, your faith in my abilities really cheers me up – but the feeling is mutual since so many amusing things seem to occur to you as well. They seem to go from a raw idea to a major hit that plagues us all in only a matter of weeks!”

“One Sunday in early spring, I was walking in the Stadtpark with my young daughter, enjoying the first rays of warm sunshine. Suddenly, in front of us reared Leo Fall in the full height of his overwhelming personality – he gave me a vigorous hug and gave my daughter and even more vigorous hug – she was eighteen at the time and he said in a state of great emotion, near tears: ‘You lucky sod!’ I could understand this explosion of feeling since he had no children of his own. But quickly returning to his cheerful self, he smiled at my lovely daughter and said ‘Mundi, this is the best thing you ever composed!’ When my daughter got married, he sent her an oil painting with a personal letter attached – both of which she kept as treasured souvenirs.

“So a tear does indeed run down my cheek with these memories of my friend. Every Christmas, I sit at the piano and play Leo Fall songs to my grandchildren and tell them that this very famous man and brilliant composer was once a close friend of their grandfather. “