The Light Classical Tradition in Central Europe


Franz Lehár was the leading composer of operettas in Vienna’s so-called “Silver Age of Operetta”

The social and cultural changes of the 19th century that brought about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism also brought about the era of Light Classical Music in Central Europe.  A Number of factors contributed to this development. On the one hand socio-economic changes created a new kind of audience for the arts. As the middle class grew in number, and the arts had increasingly to appeal to common sensibilities.  On the other hand the era of stability in the period from 1815 to 1848 – albeit conservative and even repressive at times – made many artists and society in general concentrate on the domestic and the non-political. We generally refer to the particular mood and set of trends that grew out of these unique underpinnings in Central Europe as the Biedermeier period.

At the same time a number of trends in music – particularly in the area of dance and stage performance – saw forms previously confined to the lower classes conquer middle and upper class audiences as well.  Around 1780 peasant dances known as Walzer, Schleifer and Ländler – dances in which the dancers grasped each other and which were frequently decried as immoral – became fashionable in Vienna, spreading to many other countries in the years to follow. By the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814 they had become the rage throughout society. Dance halls catering to the middle classes became increasingly popular and a whole group of composers began to meet the demand for these dance forms. Parallel to this, two distinct stage traditions morphed into a new form. On the one hand there was the Singspiel tradition in Central Europe (a form of German-language music drama characterized by spoken dialogue, alternating with musical ensembles and arias and comic or romantic in nature), which continued into the 19th century.  On the other there was the Classical tradition of musical overtures and interludes to plays. The two gradually came together in the form of “light opera” known as operetta. Vienna became the epicenter of operetta productions in the second half of the century, and these in turn were strongly influenced by the Viennese waltz, which was to become a special distinguishing feature of the genre in its Central European variant well into the 20th century.

On the dance side, two composers in the Biedermeier period created the typical structure that was to become the Viennese Waltz, while also writing prolifically for other forms such as Ländler, Gallop and Marches. The Viennese Joseph Lanner (1801-1843) was largely self-taught on the violin when he began playing in string quartets catering to dance establishments, particularly in carnival season. In 1824 he formed his own small orchestra specializing in his own compositions, which was soon such a success that a second, smaller orchestra had to be formed in 1832 to meet the busy schedule of activities.  Lanner deputized his younger colleague, Johann Strauss, Sr. (1804-1849) to lead this orchestra, but the two soon parted company and a friendly rivalry ensued. Strauss's popularity soon overshadowed Lanner's in the early 1840s, and he began to undertake extensive tours abroad, but in 1843 Lanner succumbed to typhus ending the famous rivalry. Strauss, too, composed waltzes, ländler and gallops, but perhaps his most famous composition was a march he wrote for the victorious Austrian Field Marshal, Joseph Radetzky, shortly before himself succumbing to scarlet fever in 1849.

Strauss Sr. did not wish to see his sons follow in his musical footsteps, but as we saw (see separate posting) his now much more famous oldest son, Johann Strauss, Jr., formed his own orchestra in 1844 and not only became a successful rival to his father but an international celebrity in decades thereafter. His two younger brothers were equally gifted musically and helped inaugurate an era where the Strauss family was to dominate the Viennese dance music scene for well over a half a century. Josef Strauss (1827-1870) trained to be an engineer but joined the family orchestra, along with his brothers in the 1850s.  The success of his early compositions encouraged him to continue in the family tradition of composing dance music. Josef was sickly most of his life and died prematurely after a fall in 1870. His waltzes and polkas might have surpassed those of his elder brother Johann had he survived, since the latter had begun to specialize in stage works by this point. The youngest brother, Eduard Strauss (1835-1916) was more a conductor than a composer and his popularity was overshadowed by that of his elder brothers. Realizing this, he stamped his own mark by specializing in polkas.  Eduard’s musical career was pervaded with rivalry, not only from his brothers, but also from the military bandmaster and dance music composer Carl Michael Ziehrer (1843-1922). Discovered by a publisher who had fallen out with Strauss the young Ziehrer appeared as the head of a newly formed orchestra aimed at toppling the Strauss dynasty at a famous Viennese dance hall in 1863.  Soon thereafter he was made the official bandmaster of imperial army’s 4th infantry regiment and toured extensively with the regimental band.  When he returned to Vienna, he formed an even larger and successful orchestra that specialized in playing dance music. At this point, his compositions began to gain a wider circulation among the music-loving Viennese and works such as his famous Wiener Bürger waltz were received with great appreciation.  Ziehrer represented the strongest challenger of the Strauss music dynasty. Another bandmaster in the imperial army, Julius Fučík (1872-1916) served in various regiments, writing some of the most famous marches of the Austro-Hungarian army.  As with the other Central European composers mentioned above, marches were composed not just as military music, but also as set orchestral pieces. Perfect examples of this are his Florentiner march and his Entrance of the Galdiators. A late echo of this Viennese musical legacy may be found in the well-known pastiches of the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962). One of the most noted violin masters of his day, and regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time; he was known for his sweet tone and expressive phrasing.

Operetta became a recognizable form in the 1850s in France, when the German-born French composer, Jacques (Jakob) Offenbach, found enormous success with his light and amusing so-called called opéras bouffes or opérettes. Offenbach was unabashed about spreading operetta around the continent. In 1861, he staged some of his recent works in Vienna, which motivated a theater director there to commission his own Kapellmeister (music director) Franz von Suppè (1819-1895), to write German-language pieces in a similar vein. While many biographical details concerning Suppè have undergone dramatic revisions in light of recent research, we know that he grew up in the Austrian Empire’s province of Dalmatia where his initial musical education was with the Cathedral choir of Zadar.  When his Italian-speaking father, an Austrian civil servant, died in 1835, his Viennese mother relocated with her son to the imperial capital where he simplified and Germanized his name. From 1840 on he worked as a composer and conductor for the director of several theatres in Vienna and elsewhere, where he composed overtures and incidental music for stage plays. He composed his first operetta in the Offenbach style in 1860 and went on to compose some 30 more in the following decades. Although the bulk of his operettas have sunk into relative obscurity, the overtures remain popular.  Soon, Vienna became Europe’s hub of operetta performances where composers such as Carl Millöcker (1842-1899), Carl Zeller (1842-1898) and Richard Heuberger (1850-1914) carried on the tradition that culminated in the operettas of Johann Strauss, leading to what is known as the “Golden Age of Operetta.”

The next generation of operetta composers inaugurated what has been called the “Silver Age of Operetta.” Most prominent among these was Franz Lehár (1870-1948). The eldest son of a Hungarian regimental bandmaster of the Austro-Hungarian army, he showed great musical promise at an early age.  In 1880 his father sent him to a gymnasium in Moravia to learn German and two years thereafter to the Prague Conservatory to study violin and composition. After brief experience as a musician in an orchestra in Germany, he returned to Austria and became the youngest bandmaster in the imperial army eventually succeeding his father.  The position involved military postings in different part of the empire culminating in 1902 in Vienna. Leaving the army he became conductor at the historic Vienna Theater an der Wien, and launched his career, becoming the leading operetta composer of the 20th century. His most successful and still widey performed operetta is The Merry Widdow (1905) but he also wrote a number of waltzes (the most popular being Gold and Silver). In the span of the next three decades he would compose some 30 new operettas and Singspiele. Individual songs from some of the operettas have become standards in the recital repertoire. His compatriot Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) was born as Imre Koppstein of Jewish parents in the Lake Balaton area.  The family moved to Budapest where they changes their name to the more Hungarian-sounding Kálmán and where Imre studied composition at the Budapest Academy of Music (as a fellow student of Bartók and Kodály). After the successful premiere of his first operetta in Budapest in 1908 he moved to Vienna (again changing his name from Imre to Emmerich) where he achieved worldwide fame through his operettas, including Die Csárdásfürstin (1915) and Gräfin Mariza (1924), which fused Viennese waltzes with Hungarian folk music.  He fled Vienna after the Anschluss, even though Hitler had personally offered to make him an honorary Aryan, as he was one of Hitler’s favourite composers. Moving initially to Paris and then to California, he emigrated back to Vienna in 1949. By then operettas increasingly gave way to musicals and the best-known composer of these declining years of operetta was Robert Stolz (1880-1975). He studied at the Vienna Conservatory and held a succession of conducting posts before becoming a freelance composer and conductor in 1910. In the interwar years he wrote cabaret and film music in Berlin and Vienna, fleeing to New York in 1940. In America, Stolz achieved fame with his concerts of Viennese music and received many invitations to compose music for shows and films. In 1946 Stolz returned to Vienna, where he lived for the rest of his life. Throughout he also composed a series of nostalgic songs very much reminiscent of individual numbers from Viennese operettas. Of the many songs that were composed by many other Viennese composers in that same spirit the most widely sung remains “Wien, Wien, nur du allein” (Vienna, City of my Dreams) by the Viennese composer of Polish ancestry Rudolf Sieczyński (1879-1952), which in many ways can be seen as a wistful distillation of the Silver Age of Operetta.

(N.B.: The composers in this posting are listed in chronological order by date of birth) 

Online Performances

Musical selections curated by our founding director, Professor Franz Szabo.

The selections for this posting have been constrained by what is available in live performances on YouTube.  Listeners are encouraged to follow up on the composers mentioned with other, audio-only listings.

Joseph Lanner
Born: 12 April 1801, Vienna
Died: 14 April 1843, Vienna
Steyrische Tänze, Op. 165
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 1993 

Die Schönbrunner Waltz, Op. 200
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 1994 

Die Romantiker Waltz, Op. 167
Ensemble Wien-München
Birgit Kolar, Violin and Stephan Hoever, Violins; Mathias Schessl, Viola
Jan Mischlich, Cello, Philipp Stubenrauch, Contrabass
Live from the Max-Joseph-Saal, Munich, Germany, 31 December 2011 

Jägers Lust, Jagd Galopp, Op. 82
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2001 

Johann Strauss, Sr.
Born: March 14, 1804, Vienna
Died: September 25, 1849, Vienna
Radetzky March
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2001 

Loreley-Rhein-Klänge Waltz
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, conductor
Live from the Heldenplatz in Vienna, 29 May 1999 

Franz von Suppè
(Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Suppè-Demelli)
Born: 18 April 1819, Split, Dalmatia
Died: 21 May 1895, Vienna
Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna Overture (1844)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Simone Young, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 19 April 2014 

Poet and Peasant Overture (1846)
Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Philharmonic Orchestra
Terrance Malone Gray, conductor
Live from Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, 21 May 2017 

Light Cavalry Overture (1866)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2020 

Josef Strauss
Born: 20 August 1827, Vienna
Died: 22 July 1870, Vienna
Dynamiden (Geheime Anziehungskräfte) Waltz, Op. 173
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2007 

Delirien Waltz, Op. 212
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2012 

Eduard Strauss
Born: 15 March 1835, Vienna
Died: 28 December 1916, Vienna
Eisblume Polka Mazur, Op. 55
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2020 

Karl Millöcker
Born: 29 April 1842, Vienna
Died: 31 December 1899, Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria
“Dunkelrote Rosen” (from the operetta "Gasparone")
Thomas Hampson, tenor
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Mariss Jansons, conductor
Live from the Odeonplatz, Munich, Germany, 18 July 2010 

Carl Zeller
Born: 19 June 1842, Sankt Peter in der Au, Lower Austria
Died: 17 August 1898, Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria
“Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol” (from the operetta “Der Vogelhändler)
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, soprano
Martin Mitterrutzner, tenor
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Christoph Poppen, conductor
Live from Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Koblenz, Germany, 10 July 2011
Carl Michael Ziehrer
Born: 2 May 1843, Vienna
Died: 14 November 1922, Vienna
Wiener Bürger, Waltz, Op. 419
Vienna Philarmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2012 

Schönfeld-Marsch, Op. 422
Wiener Philharmoniker,
Christian Thielemann, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2019 

Hereinspaziert! Waltz, Op. 518
Ungarische Kammerphilharmonie
Antal Barnás, conductor
Live from the Asamtheater, Freising, Bavaria, 5 January 2013 

Richard Heuberger
Born: 18 June 1850, Graz, Austria
Died: 28 October 1914, Vienna
Der Opernball, operetta in three acts (Overture)
Strauss Festival Orchestra Vienna
Peter Guth, conductor
Live from the National Recital Hall, Taipei, Taiwan, 3 January 2015 

Franz Lehár
Born: 30 April 1870, Komárom, Hungary (now Komárno, Slovakia)
Died: 24 October 1948, Bad Ischl, Austria
Gold and Silver Waltz, Op. 79
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Fedosejev, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 13 April 1998 

Nechledil March (from the operetta “Wiener Frauen”)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Live from the Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2017 

"Hab' ein blaues Himmelbett" (from the operetta “Frasquita”)
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Jochen Rieder, conductor
Live from the Konzerthaus, Berlin, 2014 

“Wolga-Lied” (from the operetta "Der Zarewitsch")
Francisco Araiza, tenor
Stuttgarter Philharmoniker
Roland Seiffarth, conductor
Live from the Hegelsaal, Stuttgart, Germany, 1998 

“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (from the operetta “The Land of Smiles”)
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Speranza Scappucci, conductor
Live from the Vienna State Opera Ball, 20 February 2017 

“Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss” (from the operetta “Giuditta”)
Sonya Yoncheva, soprano
Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid
From the Gala honouring Placido Domingo
Live from the Teatro Real, Madrid, 22 January 2010 

The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe), operetta in three acts
Petra-Maria Schnitzer (Hanna); Lydia Teuscher (Valencienne);
Bo Skovhus (Danilo); Oliver Ringelhahn (Camille);
Gunther Emmerlich (Baron Mirko Zeta); Ahmad Mesgarha (Njegus)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Filmed at the Semperoper, Dresden, December 2007
 Act 1 
Act 2 
Act 3 

Julius Fučík
Born: 18 July 1872, Prague
Died: 25 September 1916, Berlin
Florentiner March
Hastings College Symphonic Band
Daniel Laing, conductor
Live from Hastings College, Hastings, Nebraska, 17 November 2013 

Entrance of the Gladiators
Ferenc Fricsay City Wind Orchestra
Csaba Szucs, conductor
Live from Szent-Györgyi Albert Agóra, 18 April 2018 

Fritz Kreisler
Born: 2 February 1875, Vienna
Died: 29 January 1962, New York
Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow)
Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy)
Shlomo Mintz, violin
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, conductor
Live from the Vienna State Opera House, Vienna, 1993 

Schön Rosmarin
Rusanda Panfili, violin
Donka Angatscheva, piano
Recorded live in the Salon of Bank Austria, Vienna, 17 March 2016 

Rudolf Sieczyński
Born: February 23, 1879, Vienna
Died: May 5, 1952, Vienna
“Wien, Wien, nur du allein” (Vienna, City of my Dreams)
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Prague Philharmonia
Jochen Rieder, conductor
Live from the Konzerthaus, Vienna, 14 October 2019 

Robert Stolz
Born: 25 August 1880, Graz, Austria
Died: 27 June 1975, Berlin
"Es blüht eine Rose zur Weihnachtszeit"
Thomas Hampson, tenor
Vienna Choir Boys
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Live from the Konzerthaus, Vienna, December 2005 

Emmerich Kálmán (Imre Koppstein)
Born: 24 October 1882, Siófok, Somogy County, Hungary
Died: 30 October 1953, Paris
Gräfin Mariza, Operetta in three acts, Overture
Ungarische Kammerphilharmonie
Dirigent: Antal Barnás
Live from the Asamtheater, Freising, Bavaria, 5 January 2013 

"Wenn es Abend wird, grüß mir mein Wien" (from the operetta "Gräfin Mariza")
Jonas Kaufmann,tenor
Vienna Philharmonic
Plácido Domingo, conductor
Live from la Scala, Milan, 23 June 2019 

“Komm, Zigány” (from the operetta "Gräfin Mariza")
Thomas Hampson, tenor
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Mariss Jansons, conductor
Live from the Odeonplatz, Munich, Germany, 18 July 2010 

 “O jag' dem Gluck nicht nach” (from the operetta “Die Csárdásfürstin”)
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Juan Diego Flórez, tenor
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, conductor
Live from the Semperoper, Dresden, 28 December 2014 

"Heller Jubel - Weisst du es noch" (from the operetta “Die Csárdásfürstin”)
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Juan Diego Flórez, tenor
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, conductor
Live from the Semperoper, Dresden, 28 December 2014 

Watch the full collection of performances on our YouTube channel!