A BRIEF COMPARISON OF J. STRAUSS II'S DIE FLEDERMAUS AND FRANZ LEHÁR'S MERRY WIDOW
MUS 630T: Music in Vienna, 18801910
May 7, 1979
Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus and Franz Lehár's Merry Widow are two of the most successful operettas of all time. Each has tremendous audience appeal of a sort that has survived numerous shifts in public taste. Yet each features a skillful use of musical elements that the musician, too, must find admirable.
A major source of the appeal of these operettas is melody. Every number in each work uses a distinctive tune, simple enough that the audience can easily remember it, yet reflecting the sophistication of turn-of-the-century Viennese society. This is not to suggest that a given tune may not feature a characteristic (i.e., motivic) rhythmic structure or pitch sequence, but always primary consideration is given to tunefulness.
Tunes in both works are metrically straightforward and exhibit periodic phrase structure (Strauss's "Czardas" being somewhat of an exception). Both contain waltzes, although Fledermaus depends almost totally upon them, while there are only a few in the Merry Widow, used especially in dancing scenes (most notably, the "Merry Widow Waltz," which occurs at the pivotal point in the operetta at which it becomes clear that something will come of Danilo's and Hanna's love for one another). Arias are generally strophic in both works.
Both use large orchestras (Lehár's is slightly larger) and strive for a brilliant orchestral sound. Lehár's orchestration is especially bright (the music accompanying Camille's attempt to get Valencienne into the pavilion sounds very much like Richard Strauss [of perhaps Rosenkavalier]).
The harmonic language in both of these is based on a simple, generally diatonic, common-practice vocabulary. This is true to the point that chromaticism only as far as using an extended diminished-seventh chord sound, as in the pavilion scene mentioned above, creates a remarkable effect. However, considering the genre the composers were working in, they dared not experiment with harmony or tonality.
Both operettas are made up of numbers connected (or at least preceded) by spoken dialogue. Sometimes melodrama (speaking over music) is usedsomewhat more in Fledermaus. There is not necessarily any particular musical continuity between numbers.
Both operettas at certain points copy "exotic" nationalistic styles. Fledermaus uses the Hungarian Czardasat first slow, expressive, and rhythmically rather free, then faster and more exciting. The parallel in Merry Widow is the Vilja song with the interjected lively dance sections. The Vilja song is supposedly "Pontevedrinian," not Hungarianbut its flavor is certainly eastern European, perhaps Balkan. Fledermaus also features Orlofsky's Russian and Olga's Scandinavian music; Merry Widow suggests the can-can in the grisette scene.
The vocal parts are similar. Both call for an overall brilliant sound. The parts do not demand a great spectrum of expressive gradation. Although the parts are not inordinately ornamented, they still call for some technical prowess. For example, Camille and Valencienne, in the throes of love, are called upon to sing a high c and several high b's.
The subject matter of these operettas is not especially different from that of grand opera, but the treatment differs markedly. In Fledermaus, there is an extramarital affair (albeit completely one-sided) between Alfred and Rosalinde. There is the element of revenge, as Falke seeks to get even with Eisensteinbut not for the likes of a murder, but only for a practical joke. There is the confusion of mistaken identities (à la Figaro) as the result of the costumes at the ball and of Alfred's being caught with Rosalinde. Merry Widow deals with greed (everyone's desire to "marry the twenty million" of Hanna), an extramarital affair (Camille and Valencienne), honor (Valencienne's virtue; Danilo's pride in refusing to be seen as greedy, as well as his duty to his country to keep the Parisians away from Hanna), unrequited love (Hanna and Danilo until the end, Camille at the end). Yet these subjects are addressed with such lightnesseven downright comedythat they are almost not recognized for what they are. Along these lines, Fledermaus is somewhat more superficial than Merry Widow. In Fledermaus, the drama is essentially restricted to petty trickery and jealousy at the ball, which in the end turns out to be all in good fun, and everybody loves everybody. In the Merry Widow, there is at least some suggestion that the events really affect the characters' livesthe currents of love and jealousy run somewhat deeper here.
Character development is probably somewhat greater in Fledermaus, if for no other reason than that most of the characters play two roles (Alfred must play himself and Eisenstein; the rest must play themselves and also their masked-ball identities). The responsibility (or opportunity) of "being someone else" furthermore inspires people who would not otherwise be so inclined, to devise sinister plots. In Merry Widow, the characters are fairly constant. They have their goals at the beginning; the action depicts their attempts to reach them, and their ultimate success or failure.
In summary, the similarities between the two operettas outweigh the differences, for both express the happy, fun-loving element of upper middle-class Viennese society around 1900.