#composer: Emmerich Kálmán

#composer: Emmerich Kalman

by Sigurd Neubauer

The Csárdás Princess or The Gypsy Princess is one of the most popular operettas by Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953). "Boni, you're annoying," says Edwin Ronald, the son of Leopold Maria, Prince of Lippert-Weylersheim, to his friend Count Boni Kánsciánu when the latter tries to stop him from courting the beautiful and indomitable 'gypsy princess' Sylva Varescu. There are trials and tribulations until the happy couple find each other in the end - told full of charm and humor, which the delightful music wonderfully illustrates. The operetta was premiered in 1915 at the Johann Strauss Theater in Vienna and quickly became an international sensation: by the outbreak of the Second World War it is said to have been performed over 100,000 times worldwide. While The Csárdás Princess remains Kálmán's most popular work in German-speaking countries and Central Europe, Countess Mariza (1924) is better known in the English-speaking world.

Kálmán was born in Siófok (Hungary) and died in Paris, but his music is most closely associated with Vienna, where he lived for almost 30 years. "Grüß mir mein Wien" from Gräfin Maritza remains one of Kálmán's most popular melodies and is regularly played in Viennese theme concerts, whether they take place in the Austrian capital or elsewhere.

At the height of his career, Kálmán was very productive: "About every two years - from 1915 to 1930 - the Hungarian composer released a mega-hit," explains Michael D. Miller, president of the Operetta Foundation in Los Angeles and chairman of the board of the Ohio Light Opera.

His success, Miller says, brought him to the top of the operetta world in Vienna. In the late 1910s and 1920s he became even more popular than his Hungarian colleague and rival Franz Lehár. Many of Kálmán's operettas were premiered in Vienna's most prestigious theater, the Theater an der Wien, forcing many of his competitors, including Lehár, to move their works, for example to Berlin, since Kálmán completely dominated the Viennese scene.


"There is no obvious explanation for his musical gift, since Kálmán did not come from a musical family," says Miller. What the Kálmán family did have, however, was a piano in the house. When Kálmán was a young boy, he would hide under the piano and listen while his sister Vilma practiced. In his memoir The Unadulterated Truth, published in 1932, Kálmán recounts how, in 1887, when he was four years old, he developed an unlikely friendship with the violin virtuoso Ferenc Liedl. Liedl came to visit the Kálmán family every summer when he performed at the Royal Budapest Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic. "Young Kálmán stayed nearby when Liedl practiced, which the violinist initially found annoying and complained about to his parents. But when the boy had sung the entire Second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, the violinist was so impressed that what had initially been an annoyance became a 'best friend.'" The two took long walks and discussed music for hours.

In 1896, the young Hungarian enrolled at a music conservatory, where he trained as a concert pianist and was particularly inspired by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose career and compositions he wanted to emulate. But fate had other plans: Kálmán suffered a nerve injury in his right arm, which abruptly ended his career as a pianist. Fortunately, he was accepted at the Budapest Academy of Music to study music theory under the famous pedagogue Hans von Koessler. His students Kálmán, Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) became some of Hungary's most famous composers.

During his studies, Kálmán worked as a music critic for one of the most important Hungarian newspapers, Pesti Napló . There he met Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952), who later became one of Hungary's most famous dramatists. Molnár wrote, for example, the play Liliom (1909), which later became famous by Rodgers and Hammerstein as the musical Carousel (1945).

During the years 1903-1908, Kálmán wrote a number of serious musical works, including tone poems, incidental music, a piano sonata, and art songs, many of which were well received in Budapest. He also met Karl von Bakonyi, who soon became his first operetta librettist. In 1908, at the age of 26, Kálmán composed a popular cabaret song called I Am the Maid of Sári Fedák , which became a hit in Budapest. Fedak (1879-1955) was one of Budapest's most popular singers at the time. "He got wind of it and included the song in her own repertoire," Miller explains. Despite this initial success, Kálmán, like many artists before and after him, had difficulty finding a publisher for his music. "He was so frustrated," Miller reveals, that he said if he couldn't find one, "he would be forced to compose an operetta." So he did.


His first operetta, Tatárjárás (1908), or The Mongol Invasion , was an immediate success and made Kálmán famous. At that time, Miller notes, the genre of operetta was still relatively new in Budapest. The art form, pioneered primarily by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), had first taken hold in Paris before coming to Vienna, where Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) took it over and composed Die Fledermaus in 1874. From there it spread to London, New York, Berlin, and came to Budapest at the turn of the century. The Merry Widow by the Hungarian operetta composer Franz Lehár (1870-1948) was premiered in Vienna in 1905.

Tatárjárás enjoyed over 100 performances in Budapest at its very beginning. The famous Austrian operetta composer Leo Fall travelled to Budapest and was so impressed by the performance that he invited Kálmán to Vienna to prepare a German version of Tatárjárás , which premiered in 1909 under the title Ein Herbstmanöver and was also a great success. The play quickly spread throughout the world. In the United States, where it premiered on Broadway in 1909, it was known as The Gay Hussars , in England (1912) and Australia (1913) as Autumn Manoeuvres . The play was also well received in Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia, Sweden and Argentina, explains Miller.

Kálmán, was delighted that his work was being performed worldwide. "Of course, there were obvious financial reasons for this, with New York and London in particular being potentially lucrative markets," says Miller, adding that Kálmán's musical career finally took off with the premiere of Ein Herbstmanöver : the composer had earned the respect of the Viennese operetta community, even if he still sometimes felt like an outsider when he mixed with the established composers of the time.

Some time after the premiere of Tatárjárás, Kálmán met his first great love, Paula Dworczak, with whom he spent the next twenty years of his life although they never married.

His second operetta, again a Hungarian work, Az Obsitos ( Soldier on Leave ), was staged in 1910 and revised for Vienna the following year as The Good Comrade . On October 11, 1912, The Gypsy Primate was premiered at the Johann Strauss Theater in Vienna. "The huge public acclaim was further proof of Kálmán's good reputation in Vienna. The Gypsy Primate also enjoyed international success, including on Broadway in New York, where it was performed more than 150 times." It was with this work, Miller says, that Kálmán and his music became known in America, "on stage, in concert, and on the radio, and that throughout his life." Kálmán's operettas were performed more often on Broadway than those of any other 20th-century operetta composer, including Lehár. Ten of his operettas were performed on Broadway, and three more received American performances outside the city during his lifetime, Miller adds.

Kálmán lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1938. As a Jewish composer, however, he faced increasing hostility and fled first to Zurich before emigrating with his family to the United States via Paris and Mexico in 1940.


Kálmán was fascinated by Hungarian folklore, history and literature from a young age, and drew inspiration from it for many of his compositions. "He loved the Hungarian spirit, which he carried with him throughout his life," explains Miller. Despite his enormous success, Kálmán had a reputation for being shy and introverted. In contrast to his music, which is full of joie de vivre and humor, the public mostly perceived the composer as a grumpy person. This was perhaps because, explains Miller, "the composer had experienced several blows of fate in his youth, including his father's bankruptcy, as a result of which the family lost their house and all their belongings. From that point on, he experienced what he perceived as constant social and professional setbacks that haunted him for years. He was also careful with his money throughout his life, as the painful memory of the family's bankruptcy never left him," adds Miller.

"In his operettas, Kálmán was able to express his inner warmth and romantic spirit in the musical portrayal of the characters and the dramatic developments. In this way, he perhaps lived vicariously the extroverted life that he himself could not experience," says Miller. Despite his reputation for seriousness, Kálmán seems to have enjoyed many aspects of his life, especially those that connected him with his dedicated circle of friends, explains Miller. This is evident from Julius Bistron's authorized biography, published in 1932, when the composer was about 50 years old.

"Kálmán himself contributed about 80 pages to Bistron's biography about his life before moving to Vienna. This is the primary source for almost everything that has been written about his early life since," Miller explains. When asked how Kálmán's legacy endures nearly 70 years after his death, Miller says, "He is currently the most performed operetta composer in the world, due in large part to the huge popularity of his music in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as in Russia. His operettas are constantly performed in Russia, most notably The Csárdás Princess , Countess Mariza , and The Circus Princess , to name a few. In the United States, for example, the Ohio Light Opera has performed more Kálmán operettas than any other company in the world. Other American companies that have performed Kálmán over the past three decades include the Folks Operetta in Chicago, the opera houses of Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Arizona, the Village Light Opera Group in New York and the Concert Operetta Theater in Philadelphia."

Kálmán's popularity is partly due to his skillful fusion of Viennese waltz rhythms and the fiery sounds of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. His most successful works always contain at least one musical number that inspires spontaneous, rhythmic applause from the audience. His music, which supports the drama, is also characterized by the constant ebb and flow between joy and tragedy. This dynamic, Miller explains, reflects the emotional ebb and flow of Kálmán's own life. For example, when the composer was working on The Csárdás Princess - an otherwise cheerful story - he was confronted with the realities of war and learned two months before the play's premiere that his brother had died.

"The conventional wisdom is that the initial success of an operetta is linked to the script, but its lasting success is rooted in the music. As captivating as Kálmán's operetta scripts are, it is without question his genius for melody and musical-dramatic feeling that has endeared him to audiences for over a century."

This article first appeared in 'Man & Culture Magazine', published with the kind permission of the author Sigurd Neubauer: https://bit.ly/44LXeCU

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