The Heavy Loss of the “Light Weight” Edmund Eysler
Say Viennese operetta to anyone and they most likely think of Johann Strauss or Franz Lehár. In any case, both Fledermaus and Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) have pushed their way into mainstream opera houses despite the fact that neither specifically takes place in Vienna. The interpolated scene with Frosch, the drunken jailer is always an opportunity to position Fledermaus in a Viennese milieu while in fact, the opera itself makes no reference to the city or even its environs. Merry Widow takes place in Paris, a city that often serves as a suitable stand-in for Vienna. Yet both operettas deal with the interaction between aristocracy and the aspiring bourgeoisie.
The Viennese operetta recognised as such by the Viennese themselves, was understood as something quite different and had its origins in the simple, but often saucy naivety of Carl Zeller and Carl Millöcker rather than the knowingly saucy variant of Offenbach as represented by Strauss’s Fledermaus, though it is telling that Offenbach was translated into German by that most Viennese of playwrights Johann Nestroy.
(An example of the wine-house music that offered the context of pre-Offenbach influenced Vienna operetta – The title, Da Weana ist all’weil leger – is dialect and translates into contemporary English as The Viennese are always laid back.)
In any case, operetta as an export theatrical experience required plot, music and characters that could be recognised beyond the confines of any single city or country – but then, until the successes of Offenbach and Johann Strauss, it most likely never occurred to anyone to export local music theatre. After all, satire in Vienna would have been meaningless in Berlin, Paris or London and vice-versa. Operetta in Vienna finds its provenance in the plays of Nestroy, performed in local dialect and offering parodies of recognisable individuals, and specific types of Viennese. It was the insider’s joke addressed to the ‘little man and woman’ of Vienna’s working-class districts. The use of waltzes and polkas were pitched towards proletarian dance halls, rather than palace balls and most important, the action was always securely positioned in the past, keeping any possible accusations of character assassination at bay, while allowing for elaborate costumes and the irresistible bitter-sweetness of Viennese nostalgia.
Fledermaus therefore came as a shock: it took place in the present and most clearly had nothing to do with the little man and woman from Vienna’s less affluent suburbs. It changed what people had come to expect of operettas, and coming as it did immediately after the stock market crash of 1873, the wealthy bourgeoisie found themselves absorbing the brunt of satire. Nor did it deal with boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back plots. It dealt with middle-class infidelity with an array of opportunistic, social climbing insalubrious characters. It was a hit, though not initially in Vienna, where it only ran for a disappointing seven consecutive performances at the Theater an der Wien. It wasn’t until nearly 15 years later that it would get near the 200 performance mark at the same venue, but by that time, it was already a hit abroad. It was exportable, unlike Vienna’s most popular operettas hitherto, even making it onto the schedule of the ultra-sober Hamburg Opera under Gustav Mahler in 1894. This in itself is remarkable: Operettas were not meant to be performed in opera houses, and their composers and librettists ordinarily harboured no aspirations to cross this particular Rubicon.(“Küssen ist keine Sünd” – “Kissing isn’t a Sin” from Bruder Straubinger)
When Edmund Eysler premiered his Bruder Straudinger at the Theater an der Wien in 1903 it was a sensation in that it looked back rather than forward. Between 1903 and the start of the First World War, Eysler would dominate Vienna’s operetta theatres with a variety of works that today have been totally forgotten. The formula was something local audiences must have been craving after a quarter century of Offenbach and Strauss.
Eysler was born in the year of Fledermaus’s premiere: 1874 as Edmund Eisler. His musical education couldn’t have been more traditional, studying with Vienna’s professor of choice Robert Fuchs – the same teacher as Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schreker, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schmidt and even Erich Korngold. It would be a paradox of history that his best friend from this period was fellow pupil Leo Fall who left Vienna for Hamburg and Berlin in 1894, where at the Metropoltheater, he composed revue operettas that equalled in popularity the works of Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. In other words, he went in the very opposite direction to Eysler.
Eysler’s first stage work was a ballet called Schlaraffenland based on the Grimms’ fairy-tale The Story of Schlauraffen Land, which he submitted to the Imperial Opera in Vienna. Though accepted by the head of ballet, the opera was under the directorship of Gustav Mahler who had little regard for dance and rejected the work as too expensive to mount. Strauss’s librettist for Zigeuner Baron – Gypsy Baron, Ignaz Schnitzer, suggested he set his libretto Der Schelm von Bergen, rejected by Strauss as too similar to The Mikado. Eysler’s Der Hexenspiegel – The Witch’s Mirror would meet with similar disappointment, but result in the support of publisher Joseph Weinberger, allowing Eysler (still spelling his name ‘Eisler’) to give up teaching piano and devote himself to composition. Again, Mahler rejected the work and preferring to stay with tried and trusted Lortzing for comic opera – it would also be rejected by Prague and Leipzig.(Overture to Eylser’s Hexenspiegel)
Ultimately, Eysler took employment under Gabor Steiner (the father of film composer Max Steiner) working at the summer theatre Venedig in Wien – Venice in Vienna. One of the singers he would work with was ‘Miss Massari’ – soon to become better known as Fritzi Massary.
He continued to work with Steiner completing various one-act operettas, farces and music appropriate to Vienna’s answer to vaudeville when Weinberger put Eisler in touch with Moritz West, Zeller’s librettist with a suggestion of a new work that could re-cycle some of the lighter moments from Hexenspiegel. The result would be Eysler’s first success, Bruder Straubinger, opening in 1903. Eysler would later relate how the work took two years to complete as working with both West and Schnitzer required reworking each number to suit their demands for “something more like Strauss” (Schnitzer) or “something more like Zeller” (West).
With the guaranteed success of Bruder Straubinger, Wilhelm Karczag, director of the Theater an der Wien suggested that Edmund Eisler change his name. “Eisler isn’t a name for a composer!” he reportedly told Edmund – an argument that apparently was never attempted with namesake Hanns Eisler. Edmund was adamant that he would not change his name as it was disrespectful to his ancestors. A compromise was reached with the exchange of ‘i’ with a ‘y’ – making it “sound more exotic: possibly Dutch!” opined Karczag. When it was revealed that Eisler family members would have no future claim on rights or royalties, the name-change was made official for all Family members.
Much of the success of Bruder Straubinger was down to a role conceived for Alexander Girardi, Vienna’s favourite folk-actor of the day, having been central to the success of Zeller’s Vogelhändler. Girardi and Eysler would go on to collaborate on a number of operettas after Bruder Straubinger with its hit-song (still immensely popular today) of ’Küssen ist keine Sünd’ (‘Kissing isn’t a sin’). First Girardi would have to buy Eysler a decent suit and pair of shoes so that he could take his bows. It was the start of one of operetta’s most successful partnerships. Straubinger was followed by Pufferl, also at Theater an der Wien. It hardly needs mentioning that the success of Eysler and Girardi would be an enormous irritation to Steiner, though ultimately, he mounted Straubinger himself for a Venedig in Wien guest appearance in Berlin having fired Eysler upon hearing of the work going to a rival theatre.
Success grew and with it, the duo moved to Vienna’s Carltheater where they mounted Die Schützenliesel – Apron Lizzie, followed by Künstlerblut – Artist Blood. Each of the works came with singular hits songs that made their way into the wine-houses and streets of Vienna, many still sung today with few realising their provenance.
(Muatterl liab’s Muatterl – Mommy – dead Mommy – a dialect number from Eylser’s ‘Apron Lizzie’)
A 1909 return to Venedig in Wien with Fritzi Massary with Glücksschweinchen – Lucky Piggie was less successful, though it and another modest success called Johann der Zweite – John II, would be more successful outside of Vienna. The American impresario Henry Savage bought the rights to both of these works to plump up Künstlerblut, rolling the 3 works into two with the first called The Love Cure, and touted as a worthy successor to The Merry Widow, playing for five weeks on Broadway before enjoying considerable success on tour. June Bride, the American re-working of Johann der Zweite was less successful.
Oskar Fronz of Vienna’s Bürgertheater would bank on Eylser until the outbreak of the First World War with Der unsterblicher Lump – The Immortal Cad in 1910, turned into a film in 1930 by UFA, but billing the composer as Ralph Benatzky, though in fact he was merely the supervising composer for the transfer to cinema; Das Zirkuskind – The Circus Child, a return to collaboration with Girardi; Der Frauenfresser in 1911 and given the American title The Woman Haters; ein Tag in Paradies – A Day in Paradise (or in American, Blue Paradise, performed with Sigmund Romberg interpolations): and one of his biggest successes Der lachende Ehemann – the Laughing Husband in 1913. Das Strumpfband der Pompadour – Madame Pompadour’s Garterbelt in 1915; Equally successful was Der Aushilfsgatte – The Relief Husband in 1917 and the appropriately titled Dunkler Schatz – Dark Treasure coming in the fateful year of 1918. All of these works would run and run, more or less to the same formula of easy on the ear, sweet light-weight comedy.(Waltzer der Saison, from ‘Ein Tag in Paradies’ or in its American version ‘Blue Paradise’)
Eysler’s ability to knock out one success after another seemed unending. From the end of the First World War until his ban by the Nazis, he went on to compose an astonishing 24 stage works ranging from moderately to extremely successful and virtually nothing that could count as a failure. The Apollo Theater mounted his biggest success to date called Hanni geht tanzen – Hanni goes Dancing, followed by other war-time hits Graf Toni- Count Tony and Die oder keine – Either She or Nobody running for 125 successive performances. His 1914 chauvinistic Frühling am Rhein would have been more appropriately forgotten, composed in the initial intoxication of Austria-Hungary’s war-time coalition with Germany. More was the pity as one of its librettists was the best in the game: Fritz Löhne-Beda. The writers’ team for most of Eysler’s war-time operettas was made up of Oskar Friedmann and Ludwig Herzer.(Das Hutschen Lied – Seesaw Song from ‘Hanni geht tanzen’ – or ‘Hanni goes to the Dance’)
His post-war works were more equivocal and he tried to keep up with the trend for contemporary settings and escapist tales of aristocracy with their contemporary interpolation of Fox-trots, Shimmies and Charlestons. His effort in this direction with Das Land der Liebe – The Country of Love, was a reasonable success. He nevertheless returned to what he did best and in 1927, the year of Ernst Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf, Eysler would enjoy his greatest success since Bruder Straubinger with Die gold’ne Meisterin – The Golden Mistress (in the sense of employer rather than lover). It ran over 200 successive performances at Theater an der Wien and was reputed to be Hitler’s favourite operetta. Ihr Erster Ball – Her first Ball followed in 1929, but with financial chaos looming it would spell the end of Eysler’s success and perhaps the end of a uniquely Viennese genre of operetta that today is barely remembered.
(Fein, fein schmeckt uns der Wein, from Der lachende Ehemann‘ – Fine, fine tastes the Wine from ‘The Laughing Husband’ – one of Eysler’s most enduring hits)
To complete the artistic biography its worth mentioning only that following the war in 1945, Eysler would be welcomed back with a return of the plaque removed from his birthplace by the Nazis. He composed one more ‘hit’ with Wiener Musik – Viennese Music, in 1947, performed at the Bürgertheater. He died on October 4th 1949 after a fall from the stage. He was 73 and it was surely a tragic, but unsurprisingly fitting end to a lifetime devoted to the theatre.
Evaluating the importance of a composer such as Eysler is difficult. His Ace with local audiences was the ultra-Viennese actor/Singer Alexander Girardi, friend of the little man as well as Katharina Schratt, the confidante of the Emperor Franz Joseph. Girardi as an actor defined Vienna much in the same way that Woody Allen defines New York today. Every character he played was instantly recognisable and irresistibly appealing. Eysler’s operettas, often with Girardi in the lead, dominated local stages while attracting the sneers of grand musical luminaries such as Ludwig Karpath who in 1903 wrote the following:
“The music of Edmund Eysler? Easy on the ear, while not being overly original. If Edmund Eysler is the new man on the street, his tunes are as old as the operetta hills of a distant age. It goes without saying that Mr. Eysler at least distinguishes himself from his colleagues by being a more than competent musician who knows how to draw out and mix local colour. He organises an amusing squence with a string of Waltzes, polkas and marches along with attractive sung numbers.”
(Merke Dir gut – sei auf der Hut – Take Note and Take Care – from ‘Pufferl’)
Ten years later, the de haut en bas view had hardly changed with the following observation:
“Of all the Viennese operetta composers today Edmund Eysler must surely be the most approachable and most frequently performed. Perhaps the reason for this is his ability to hit the right degree of easy-on-the-ear melody. He expresses himself through his works by employing the familiar dialect of working class Vienna, never imposing himself, his performers or his audience to the artificially exalted heights of High German; he maintains a respectable banality, while aiming for, and hitting the unabashed pleasures of the street ballad right on the mark.”
By 1914, a new work of Eysler’s was running for hundreds of consecutive performances at a single venue. It had made him and the directors of the Carlstheater, Theater an der Wien and Bürgertheater very wealthy.
(‘Jubiläumswalzer’ – ‘Jubilee Waltz’)
Eysler’s earlierst librettists were Moritz West, former collaborator of Carl Zeller who had declared that there had been no composers worth collaborating with between Zeller and Eysler (tactlessly omitting Johann Strauss) and Ignaz Schnitzer, librettist for Strauss’s Gypsy Baron. There followed a nomenclature of comic aristocracy including Fritz Grünbaum, Robert Bodanzky, Felix Salten, Fritz Löhner-Beda, Oskar Friedmann, Ludwig Herzer, Julius Brammer and Ernst Marischka.
By 1925 with Das Land der Liebe (The Country of Love) Eysler too had succumbed to the trend of modern ‘Salon operettas’ offering aristos dancing Shimmies, foxtrots, Charlestons and jazz bands. It was a sensation but untypical and it, along with a similar ‘modern’ work from 1929 called Ihr erster Ball (Her First Ball) are notable by their absence in the Wikipedia list of Eysler works. Both were performed at the Bürgertheater with librettists Gustav Tintner and Hans Herling. According to Eysler’s biographer, the actor Robert Maria Prosl, they were “enormous hits” – making their absence even more peculiar. Indeed, there appears to be a gap between Die fromme Helene from 1921 and Die gold’ne Meisterin from 1927. The latter – said to be Hitler’s favourite operetta – was a return to his earlier metier. Indeed, it was a good deal more – it was a satirical line drawn between the delusions of the aspirational middle classes, the aristocracy and honest journeymen. Parody is drawn as the members from each class fall in love with each other and pay the price of being exposed as hypocrites or social climbers and ultimately, all of the correct combinations of boys and girls pair off with one another. It’s pure, unadulterated sentimental kitsch of the sort that made Edmund Eysler a hugely successful composer.
(Du liebe gold’ne Meisterin)
It would not be the slightest help to Eysler that Hitler would admire his Gold’ne Meisterin. It, along with all of his other hits, was removed following the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.The plaque outside of his birthplace was removed and Eysler would become persona-non-grata overnight. Eysler’s marriage to a non-Jew was his partial rescue along with his status as ‘esteemed citizen of Vienna’ an honorific offered by the city, surprisingly not revoked by the Nazis. It still meant he was unable to attend public performances, enter parks or restaurants and even walk on the street as he was in constant danger of being swept up by one of the frequent raids that arrested everyone Nazi thugs suspected as Jewish. “Special status”, if such there was, would only be established after months in a concentration camp and the payment of bribes. Eysler was too well known to escape notice and too elderly to survive even a week in a camp. He found himself confined within the four walls of his home. His worries extended to the safety of his father and other relatives who, had they not already been deported, found themselves unable to escape the bombing raids in shelters that prohibited Jews. Friends and fans from earlier days crossed the street to avoid compromising themselves. His librettists, Grünwald and Löhner-Beda were murdered in camps, Brammer died while fleeing the Nazis in France, Herzer died in Switzerland. Others, such as Felix Salten or Gustav Beer, co-librettist for Eysler’s Der König Heiratet, or The King Marries, fled for their lives and lived out the war years in exile.
It’s an intriguing question with no clear answer. Eysler was the most popular of a light-weight genre of local musical theatre. The nature of such a genre is ever changing, so it’s impossible to say what would have happened had Hitler not removed Eysler from Vienna’s boulevard venues. He would have carried on and his most timeless numbers would still be with us – and perhaps he would have continued composing one hit after another right from 1934 to 1945. But we can’t know. Tastes have changed, and it seems unlikely that his plots are as timeless as Nestroy’s plays, even if they often deal with the same milieu. Social change and commentary were not his strengths, nor in the interest of his public. His gift was probably uniquely Viennese in that he elevated the popular melodies of the wine-houses (the Heurigen) to the operetta stage. Few were exportable, and those that did travel required a good deal of adaptation as seen by Romberg and Benatzky’s contributions. Ultimately, it reminds us that Nazi anti-Semitism not only deprived the world of great music, but local communities of their own light entertainment. It was music that was meant to be local, thus lending a sense of belonging to all who enjoyed it. To ban it, was to lose the community from which it sprung. It replaced that fabled goldenes Wiener Herz – golden heart of the Viennese, with Nazi brutality. Eysler’s music, for all of its innocence, reminds us of a side of human nature that was submerged and practically lost forever after March 13th, 1938.
(So tantz man nur in Wien – One only Dances like this in Vienna from ‘Die Gold’ne Meistering)