Lehár came from a Central European musical family: his father was for 40 years a military bandmaster and composer of dances and marches, while his uncle was music director in Sternberg, where the young Lehár was sent to play violin in the town orchestra under his uncle’s baton. Following studies at the Prague Conservatory (where he received some advice from Dvorák), Lehár began his career as a theatre violinist in the Rhineland, before being called up for military service where he played under his father. In the 1890s he held musical appointments in the military before eventually moving to Vienna in 1902.
Once in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and musical capital of Europe, Lehár’s career as an outstanding composer of Austro-German operetta flourished. His biggest success came early, with The Merry Widow in 1905, both at home and abroad, and it paved the way for a new era of Viennese operetta not only through Lehár’s own works, but also those of composers such as Fall, Oscar Strauss and Kálmán. Lehár’s success continued in the 1920s with a valuable association with the tenor Richard Tauber, starting in Salzburg in 1921. In the later 1920s and 1930s, Lehár began to be involved with film versions of several of his operettas. He remained in Vienna and Bad Ischl during the Second World War. Immersed in his music and not prepared to engage in politics by protesting at Nazi atrocities (his wife was Jewish, as were many of his collaborators), Lehár was the subject of suspicion outside Germany.
Lehár’s greatest musical gift was that of being able to fashion memorable melodies. Yet he was also extremely technically accomplished in harmony and orchestration, which only served to enhance his melodic gifts. He often used the waltz as the centrepiece of an operetta (The Merry Widow is a good example). Despite his extremely accessible and popular musical idiom, he was well-versed in the music of his contemporaries, notably Puccini, Richard Strauss and Debussy.