Robert StolzBorn: August 25th, 1880, Graz (Austro-Hungarian Empire, nowadays: Austria)
Died: June 27th, 1975, West Berlin (West Germany, nowadays: Germany)
Inevitably, young Robert – who was one of two of Jakob Stolz’s children who went on to become a musician, the other one being elder brother Leopold – was taught his first music lessons by his parents, and from a very tender age onwards. “When I was only two, three years old, my mother encouraged me for the first time to play the piano. She told me fairy-tales or described details of everyday life – a bird spreading his wings, a puffing locomotive, the falling rain, soldiers marching by – and then invited me to give an impression of my feelings on the piano. Until today, I remember these short fragments which I invented as a child. I often play them to get in the mood, when I sit down at the piano to improvise – an echo from my childhood.”
Though Jakob Stolz was staunchly conservative in religious and moral affairs, he had a keen eye for contemporary music; he conducted the premiere of Wagner’s opera ‘Tannhäuser’ in Vienna and was a longtime friend of Bruckner and Brahms, who were regular guests at his house. Young Robert often sat on Brahms’ lap whilst the German composer was discussing music with his father. Uniquely, one time when bed time was approaching, Brahms played his famous ‘Wiegenlied’ (= Lullaby) for Robert personally.
“What an experience to hear every detail, every vibration, which the maestro himself gave to his masterpiece! It was simply wonderful – but it failed its purpose: for hours, I failed to fall asleep, tossing from one side of my bed to the other, because the melody was stuck in my head. Its effect on me was inspiring rather than soothing! At Brahms’ next visit to my father, I played the melody to him. He sat down next to me at the piano, practicing with me. “That was wonderful, Robert, truly wonderful”, he said. “You haven’t just memorised the notes well, although that is really important too, but you have even shown a deep sense of music.” “Oh, that is easy, sir, when the music is so beautiful! It is just as if the notes rolled from my fingers by themselves. Was it like that as well when you wrote the ‘Wiegenlied’?” “Not really, my dear Robert! When you yourself will try to compose one day, you will find soon enough that the most easy-going melodies sometimes are the most difficult to compose.” And yes, he was right, I found that out!”
As he was totally immersed in music even in his childhood, Robert did badly at regular school work, making him, according to himself, the worst student in the whole of Styria. Meanwhile, father Stolz, recognizing his son’s talent as a pianist, integrated him in his music ensemble with which he undertook summer tours in Austro-Hungary and Bavaria. Thanks to Jakob’s connections, young Robert received further piano and music theory training from Robert Fuchs and Engelbert Humperdinck. In 1896, Robert Stolz succeeded in obtaining his state music diploma in his exams in Vienna. His first regular – though unpaid – job was as a répétiteur for ballets and operas at the Graz City Theatre. Having conducted the local orchestra for the first time at the age of seventeen, he received his first regular appointment as a conductor – second kapellmeister at the City Theatre of Marburg an der Drau, a backwater in Lower Styria (modern-day Maribor, Slovenia). If he wanted to fulfil his ambition of becoming a successful conductor, it was a case of starting at the bottom of the ladder. His first performance in Marburg was Johann Strauss Jr’s operetta ‘Der Zigeunerbaron’.
“It turned out my ‘orchestra’ consisted of six gypsies, muscled little men with moustaches and sticky tresses; each of them was a natural talent without the ability of reading music, but they played brilliantly, with the versatility and the temperament of true gypsies. I only had to play them the score of ‘The gypsy baron’ twice at the piano… and after the second time they knew the entire piece by heart. It was astonishing. Back in the days gone by of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, all larger and smaller towns which now belong to Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were treasure-troves teeming with musical talents. I will never forget the first wages I received in Marburg – these were paid in kind, consisting as they did of a set of delicious large liver sausages.”
During the 1899 summer break, Robert Stolz spent some days in the capital, where he attended a rendition of Strauss’ operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’ (‘The revenge of the bat’) at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by the composer himself – mere weeks before the latter’s passing away. Utterly fascinated by the performance, Stolz, despite his innate love for ‘serious’ classical music, decided to dedicate the remainder of his life to the lighter genres. Thanks to a letter of recommendation written by his father, Robert is invited to pay a visit to the maestro’s house. After dinner, Strauss urges him to sit down at the piano and play: “I was delighted. At that point, being so nervous, playing seemed easier than talking. As it would have been sacrilege to play to Strauss my own version of his compositions, I played some minor pieces by Mozart and one or two melodies I had invented myself – without ever having bothered of putting them to paper. “That Mozart bit was good,” Strauss said as he put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “There have always been good renditions of Mozart ever since he started composing, though… but these little melodies you played after that – I failed to recognise them. Who is the composer?” “I am, maestro”, I stammered. “In that case, young man, I urge you to follow your inclination. You could really create something new – something which truly flows from your heart and could be successful at the same time.”
Back in Marburg, Robert Stolz wrote his first play, ‘Studentenulke’ – “a weak start, admittedly, but a start nevertheless.” After spending four years in Slovenia, Stolz was appointed first operetta conductor at the Salzburg City Theatre. In 1903, having gotten out of the military after a couple of months, he was signed as a conductor of an Austrian operetta ensemble for a tour across Russia, performing in Kiev, Odessa, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. When the tour was broken off as virtually all ballet dancers had been proposed to by Russian noblemen, Stolz and the remainder of the orchestra were put in a sealed train, destination Berlin. Out of work, Stolz earned some money as the pianist in a brothel and kapellmeister of a circus orchestra. At the end of the year, he went back to Austro-Hungary, as he was signed as a first operetta and opera conductor at the German Theatre in Brünn (modern-day Brno in Czechia), working with opera singers Leo Slezak and Maria Jeritza, who he conducted for her debut performance.
In 1905, Stolz’s ‘wandering years’ were over as he was signed as first kapellmeister at the renowned Theater an der Wien in Vienna. In the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, he managed to build a reputation as a first-class conductor of operetta repertoire, making him part of the revival of that genre, the so-called Silver Era of Viennese Operetta. His rendition of Franz Lehár’s ‘Die lustige Witwe’ (‘The merry widow’) was put on stage a record-breaking 547 times. Even Emperor Francis Joseph attended a performance, as Stolz recounts in his memoirs: “His lady-friend Katharina Schratt urged him to go and watch me conducting ‘The merry widow’ – and she later told me he had spoken kindly of me following the performance: “As far as I can make out, that young kapellmeister is talented. He holds his baton as a field marshal’s staff. And the way he controls the stage and the orchestra simultaneously! Our officers should take an example from him!” Still, no praise, not even coming from the aged emperor, could be more important to me than Adele Strauss’ suspicion that her late husband Johann’s hand must have led mine while conducting the overture to ‘Die Fledermaus’.”
Apart from conducting the works of Strauss, Kálmán, and Lehár at the Theater an der Wien, Stolz also tried his hand over and over at composing a hit operetta himself. After some botched attempts, he finally managed a box office success: ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Wien’ (‘The merry wives of Vienna’, 1909), performed at the Colosseum Theatre. One thing led to the other, and Theater an der Wien director Wilhelm Karczag commissioned him to write the music to ‘Das Glücksmädel’, starring Alexander Girardi, which turned into another audience favourite. Bolstered by these successes, in 1910, Robert Stolz decided to leave his conducting job at the Theater an der Wien, preferring henceforth to work as a freelance composer and kapellmeister, producing and conducting his operettas in theatres across Austro-Hungary and Germany.
After the outbreak of the First World War (1914), Robert Stolz was integrated into the Austrian army, becoming the deputy to kapellmeister Wilhelm Watzek of the K.u.K. Deutschmeister Marching Band. Being permitted by the military to continue his freelance activities, Stolz composed several operettas during the war, including ‘Der Favorit’, of which he conducted the premiere at Berlin’s Komische Oper theatre. Furthermore, he proved himself as a songwriter for cabaret artists; in the course of the 1910s, he composed some of his popular songs, such as ‘Servus Du’ and ‘Im Prater blüh’n wieder die Bäume’. Shortly after war’s end, Stolz was the first European musician to write a foxtrot – the dance popularised in America several years before. In his memoirs, the composer recalls how he wrote the tune late at night during a visit of his music publisher Otto Hein, who urged him to write an ‘oriental foxtrot’; though reluctantly, Stolz sat down at the piano.
“Trying to come up with an image that could be suitable to be expressed in a song, I fantasized about a voluptuous, dark beauty, performing a seductive dance. At that point, the music took over, using my fingers to play the piano. I sang: ‘Saaalome’. Otto and Franzi (Stolz’s second spouse) were convinced the correct pronunciation was ‘Sàlome’, but in spite of their protests, I stuck to ‘Saaalome’. Somehow, I suppose the song went on to such popularity exactly because of this unexpected emphasis. While I immediately liked the melody, Franzi absolutely hated it (…). Probably she, as so many other non-composers, feels it is impossible to come up with a decent piece of music without first praying for weeks on end on some remote mountain top. With the right mood and inspiration, all of that is perfectly superfluous. (…) She was rock-solidly convinced the song wouldn’t work – so much so, that she refused to include it in her cabaret programme she performed at Kabarett Simpl. Thereupon, I gave it to another artist, Ujvary, whose cabaret performance of ‘Salome’ involved dressing up as an Arab sheikh seated in front of his desert tent; and he enjoyed huge success with it. Once Franzi saw she had been wrong, she included it in her show as well, but, to my mind, she never completely forgave me this episode.”
Stolz had no qualms to admit that ‘Salome’ was by no means his favourite creation, even wondering why audiences liked it at all, but the song was destined for a long life in various guises, being re-recorded many times over, most famously perhaps by Petula Clark with lyrics in English (‘Romeo’: 1961). Two years later, Sophia Loren danced her climactic striptease scene for Marcello Mastroianni in ‘Ieri, oggi e domani’ to Henry Wright’s Italian version of the song, ‘Abat-jour’. In 1967, American close harmony formation Ray Charles Singers included it on their album ‘A special something’ under yet another title, ‘Step by step’.
In 1920, Robert Stolz composed the only opera of his career, ‘Die Rosen der Madonna’, inspired by a painting he saw in a monastery he visited together with a friend, librettist Bruno Hardt-Warden, on a sailing trip to Greece. In the following years, Stolz was singularly successful as a composer of operettas, including, most notably, ‘Tanz ins Glück’ (English-language version: ‘Sky high’, 1920) and ‘Mädi’ (or ‘The blue train’, 1923), both of which found their ways to theatres across Europe and America.
In 1924, in what artistically was the unluckiest move of his life, Robert Stolz decided to found a theatre of his own, the so-called ‘Robert-Stolz-Bühne’ in Vienna’s Annagasse. He invested all his money on renovating the old building. To allow his third wife, Fini, a modestly talented cabaret starlet, to enjoy the limelight as an operetta singer, he wrote ‘Ein Rivieratraum’, which according to Stolz was the worst theatre piece he composed in his life. Its performance flopped disastrously – and there was even worse to come. Within months, he was forced to apply for bankruptcy. “All of this happened at the height of a major theatre crisis in Vienna”, he explained. “Theatres died like flies. Money to save them was nowhere to be found. My failure was one amongst the many, but mine received more press attention than the others since I was a well-known composer. “Mortgage on Robert Stolz’ brain”, was a header in one of the local newspapers after I had declared bankruptcy. Before long, I was the joke of the day in Vienna, a city that rarely feels sorry for those who fail.”
Humbled by his financial disasters and the divorce of his third wife, Stolz decided to leave Vienna to start a new life in Berlin, only just recovering from hyperinflation, but a ‘creative bee swarm’, as he put it, at the same time. On the day of his arrival, his old friend Kurt Robitschek (lyricist of several of Stolz’s melodies) commissions him to write a new operetta, ‘Märchen im Schnee’, performed at the Kabarett der Komiker. Slowly but steadily, Stolz managed to pay off his debts by feverishly composing one operetta after the other. One of these titles, ‘Due baci’, for which he teamed up with Puccini’s former librettist Renato Simoni, premiered in Milan’s Teatro Lirico (1926). In 1927, he composed the music to the ‘Blumenlieder’, a cycle of poems by Bruno Hardt-Warden.
Since the early years of his professional life, Robert Stolz had always been a keen follower of technical innovations. In 1904, he had conducted one of Europe’s first studio recording sessions with operatic soprano Selma Kurz, whilst, nine years later, being the first composer worldwide to write an original film score; for the premiere of the silent movie ‘Der Millionenenkel’ in Vienna’s Beethoven Auditorium, he conducted the orchestra whilst, simultaneously, the film was being projected. In 1929, again, Stolz was the first of his colleagues to jump onto a new bandwagon: he composed the music to Europe’s first synchronised sound film, ‘Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt’ (Two hearts in three-quarter time), recorded in Berlin. The success of the film was astounding; on Broadway, New York, it was screened for fifty consecutive weeks in the original German version. The waltz which was the film’s title song became a hit overnight. Over forty years later, Stolz still recalled the thrill he felt whilst trying to overcome the challenges posed by the new medium.
“The cameras were running, the orchestra played, the actors were singing – everything at the same instant! Each musical detail had to be recorded perfectly at the first take, as a repeat of the scene was most undesirable in view of budget and timeframe. For me, ever the perfectionist, absolute concentration was required; as soon as I raised the baton, I had to keep my eyes on the orchestra, scenario, vocalists and sound engineers all at the same time – and moreover gather all my strength to pray to the good lord that no disasters would occur. (…) When looking back on it today, I wonder how on earth we pulled it off. There was no playback yet and the acoustics in the spacious old Atelier Tempelhof hall changed with each new staging – hardly surprising, because it had not been purpose-built for film recordings. Even the trains posed problems to us! Very close to Atelier Tempelhof was a rail track, which left us no other option but to adjust our schedule to the railway’s timetable to prevent a faraway, yet clearly audible locomotive from screeching and squeaking its way into a compelling film scene.”
In the nine following years, composing and conducting film music became Stolz’s main source of income, recording the original scores to nearly fifty German and Austrian film productions, including notable box-office successes ‘Ein Lied, ein Kuß, ein Mädel (1931), ‘Ich liebe alle Frauen’ (1935) and ‘Zauber der Boheme’ (1937); for these productions, he worked with stars such as Richard Tauber, Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth. In 1934, his film scoring received international recognition at Venice’s Biennale Festival, where he was awarded with a Gold Medal for his music to ‘Frühjahrsparade’.
Meanwhile, Robert Stolz continued writing cabaret songs – including the iconic ‘Frag’ nicht warum ich gehe’ for Marlene Dietrich –, waltzes and theatre pieces, including the musical comedy ‘Im weißen Rößl’ (co-written with Ralph Benatzky: 1930), the operetta ‘Venus in Seide’ (‘Venus in silk’: 1932), and even a London West End musical: ‘Rise and shine’, featuring Fred Astaire as its star actor (1936). For many of his operetta productions, Stolz worked with German-Jewish librettist Robert Gilbert – a professional relationship which was to last for many years, well into the 1960s.
Looking back on his experiences with Robert Gilbert (pseudonym of Robert Winterfeld, 1899-1978), Stolz declares: “He is one of my favourite poets. If the focus is there, Robert can be a truly fantastic poet and philosopher. Moreover he has a wonderful dry sense of humour which is never obtrusive. As so many comedy authors, he has a penchant for deep melancholy – a character trait which makes me understand and love him all the more. (…) Robert Gilbert has not only written the lyrics to many of my German-language songs and operettas – including some of the best-known among them –, he has also won an excellent reputation by reworking foreign musicals for productions in German. One would hardly render justice to his work when referring to him merely as the ‘translator’ of works such as ‘My fair lady’, ‘Gigi’ and ‘Man of La Mancha’; no, when Robert puts his pen to paper, he creates pure poetry. Each of his musical librettos for the German market is a typical Robert Gilbert creation, and in many cases he has managed to improve on the original.”
In 1936, Stolz, unable to close his eyes any longer for Nazi crimes perpetrated against Jewish citizens, took the decision to leave Germany and return to Vienna – even though he was courted by the Hitler regime to come out on their side. Because he was still working in Berlin and regularly travelled from Austria to Germany and back, Stolz was able to smuggle Jewish colleagues, friends and friends of friends across the border in the course of the two following years. Stolz’s stepdaughter Clarissa Henry: “The entire film industry was owned by Jews – all lyricists, all script writers (…), but all of a sudden, they were disappearing, one after the other. To Robert Stolz, it was as if the world had changed into a desert. There was nobody left to drink a glass of wine with, which was really important to him. (…) He was asked to help some of these poor people. His car – which was a big Gräf & Stift limousine, built especially for him – was driven by a man, who was a Nazi, but agreed to participate in the plot nonetheless. The children were given sleeping pills to avoid waking them up at the border. The adults were hidden under blankets. Having arrived at the border, the customs officers didn’t even check his passport. They were too impressed by his fame. “Mr Stolz, please, an autograph for my wife. She watched your film ‘Zauber der Boheme’. Please!” And that is how he managed to bring these Jews to Vienna.”
In total, Stolz clandestinely helped German Jews cross the border into Austria on twenty-one occasions, at great personal risk. When, in 1938, the Germans occupied Austria, Stolz, a vocal opponent of Hitler, escaped to Switzerland – and from there to France. There, he composed three more operettas before being taken hostage – as a German citizen – by French authorities shortly after France’s declaration of war against Germany. Stolz, always susceptible to nervous breakdowns, fell into a deep depression, but was released thanks to the efforts of Yvonne ‘Einzi’ Ulrich, a young German-English woman studying law in Paris. Shortly before Hitler’s invasion of France in 1940, she also helped Stolz obtaining a visa to travel to New York – where she joined him later that same year, as Robert and Einzi became a couple, and eventually husband and wife. For Stolz, it was his fifth and last marriage, and by far the most happy one; it lasted until his passing away in 1975. In New York, Stolz joined the ever-growing German-Austrian émigré community of artists and intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, Oscar Strauss, Bertolt Brecht, Jan Kiepura and Stolz’s librettist Robert Gilbert.
Virtually unknown in America, Stolz had a particularly hard time during his first year in New York. He tried his best to sell his operettas on Broadway, but, initially, to no avail. Competition of composers and songwriters was simply more stiff than he had been used to in Europe. Finally, being asked by another émigré, a musician from Berlin, he conducted a concert of Viennese repertoire with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, replacing Bruno Walter, the regular conductor, who had fallen ill. Stolz was hugely relieved to be back at work: “After such a long, involuntary absence from the conductor’s platform, I was beaming with energy to go up there and conduct that concert… and what was more, with the New York Philharmonic! This was to be the first of – what would later turn out be – countless of ‘A night in Vienna’ concerts, and it was a tremendous evening. The orchestra, which included so many old friends from Berlin and Vienna, played at its best. For a couple of hours, Johann Strauss’ music filled the Carnegie Hall with a true Viennese spirit. As for me, now that I was holding the baton, I knew I was back on track as the audience responded enthusiastically.”
Stolz’s American impresario managed to book him for Viennese concerts with classical orchestras across the United States and even Latin America. Twice, he conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an open-air concert at Grant Park for a staggering 62,000 spectators. “The plan was simple,” Stolz explained. “I was booked in any town disposing of a symphony orchestra and a choir. Opera stars such as Jan Peerce, Charles Kullman, Miliza Korjus, Herta Glatz and Jarmila Novotná were booked as soloists. Many conductors would not have been happy to work with so many different orchestras, but to me it was rather a pleasant challenge, all the more so as the concerts were good and heart-warming occasions. I have always felt emotionally close to orchestra musicians. While treating each of them as an individual artist, I endeavour to create an ensemble which is a team instead of just a sum of individuals. In this respect, I’m not a firm believer in democracy; there has to be someone who takes the lead, and if a conductor fails to do this, the situation inevitably descends into musical anarchy. To my mind, tact, fairness and mutual respect are required – something which my friend Toscanini always made jokes about. He felt I was prone to pampering musicians too much. The truth of the matter is that each conductor has his own particular style; I have always found musicians follow their conductor’s lead most willingly once he has shown himself a true professional, worthy of their respect.”
Only after considerable time did Stolz manage to convince a Broadway theatre owner to stage one of his pieces, but when the opportunity finally arrived, success eluded him; his musical ‘One night of love’ only managed three weeks at the Century Theatre. Subsequently, he was involved as a musical director in much smaller productions of ‘The revenge of the bat’ and ‘The gypsy baron’, both of which were quite well received. This led to a commission to produce a modernised version of Lehár’s operetta ‘The merry widow’ at the Majestic Theatre, starring his old Berlin friends Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura (1943). A new libretto was provided by Oscar Hammerstein II. Stolz: “Since the available orchestrations were not up to par, I had no other option but to write new instrumentations to most of the operetta. Moreover, there was a need to make considerable adaptations to fit Broadway parameters. One of the rewritten songs was the wonderful ‘Komm’ in den kleinen Pavillon’, which I arranged as an aria for Jan Kiepura (…). Lehár never wrote an overture for ‘The merry widow’. For our New York production, I created an overture with the best melodies of the operetta, giving our audience, the majority of which weren’t familiar with the piece, a foretaste of what was to come. At each performance I conducted, the overture was followed by an overwhelming applause – a so-called ‘standing ovation’.”
The production was met with a reasonably favourable critical reception. Due to a conflict with Jan Kiepura, however, Stolz withdrew from the production after a mere three weeks. He continued writing theatre music, including a brand new musical, ‘Mister Strauss goes to Boston’ (1945). Thanks to his symphonic concerts and operetta productions, Stolz received commissions from record companies to record operetta fragments and Viennese waltzes; between 1942 and 1945, America’s Decca branch released a considerable number of records of the so-called Robert Stolz Orchestra, with musicians handpicked by the maestro himself – mainly European émigrés.
During the war years, Robert Stolz also worked on two Hollywood movies: first, in 1940, when a remake was done of German musical comedy ‘Frühjahrsparade’, for which Stolz had composed the music, he reworked the original score; his song ‘Waltzing in the clouds’, performed in the film by lead character Deanna Durbin, was nominated for an Oscar. In 1943, he was invited to write the score to René Clair’s film ‘It happened tomorrow’, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Stolz recorded the orchestrations in Hollywood’s United Artists Studio: “When I was about to start the recording, I was given notice that, due to other conductors being booked on sessions as well, the entire score had to be recorded within twenty-four hours. There was hardly time even to smoke a cigarette or drink a cup of coffee. We started at 8AM and after having ‘consumed’ three shifts of studio musicians and sound engineers, work was finally completed just before eight the next morning. Completely exhausted, I sank into the first chair I could find and fell asleep immediately – only to be woken up again by someone who told me to have my nap elsewhere, because the next shift of musicians were about to start their session.” In spite of the far-from-ideal conditions in which he had to record the music to ‘It happened tomorrow’, Stolz was again nominated for an Oscar Award, this time for Best Music Score.
Finally, in the fall of 1946, after completing a tour of ‘A night in Vienna’ concerts across the Americas, Robert Stolz returned to his beloved Vienna, which had been heavily damaged during the last stages of the war. As it turned out, the composer and his old audience needed time to get used to each other again; his attempt at staging an American-style musical in Vienna’s Apollo Theatre failed miserably, but he succeeded in capturing the mood of the day by composing ‘Wohin ist das alles, wohin?’ (‘Where oh where has everything gone?’, lyrics by Robert Gilbert), which, according to Stolz himself, was “possibly the saddest of the many hundreds of songs I wrote”. Freed from German occupation, the reinstated Austrian Republic was keen to honour its new hero, who had been the country’s best possible ambassador to the United States over the past few years: in 1947, state authorities gave Stolz an honorary professor’s title, whilst he was awarded with an honorary citizenship by the City of Vienna in that same year.
Though, by now, Robert Stolz was in his late 60s, he was as energetic as ever to compose operettas – and, as it turned out, he had many years of musical creativity left, as, between war’s end and the mid-1960s, he composed over a dozen new operettas and several musical comedies, put on stage in Austria, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Titles include ‘Drei von der Donau’ (1947), ‘Rainbow square’ (1951), and ‘Joie de vivre’ (1960). In terms of film scoring, he was hardly less prodigious, with some twenty titles to his credit over the same period; especially popular was the 1955 movie ‘Die Deutschmeister’, which was another remake of ‘Frühjahrsparade’, starring fledgling young actress Romy Schneider. He also built up a long-standing collaboration with Austrian broadcaster ORF, working on radio plays, music films, and concerts.
In 1952, Stolz embarked on a new musical adventure, as he was commissioned to write the music to the Vienna Ice Revue. Stolz’s wife Einzi recalled how it all started: “In 1952, we were paid a visit by Adolf Eder, the manager of Vienna’s Skating Association. He was the owner the Vienna Ice Revue as well. “Maestro”, Eder said, “I would love you writing something especially for our ice revue. My wish is to create a new art form, ‘operetta on ice’.” “That sounds interesting”, Robert answered, “but the problem is: I have never seen an ice revue in my life!” So Robert and I were booked on an aeroplane to Belgium, where the ice revue was running in the town of Charleroi. We were delighted by the grace and nearly ballet-like beauty of the ice dance. Robert, however, was less impressed with the dull musical accompaniment. (…) His goal was to create a musical unity between traditional Viennese themes and contemporary melodies and rhythms, which would enchant younger audiences worldwide; it was a challenge, but one he was keen to take up. “Youngsters have a right to hearing the music of their generation,” he used to say, “and it is not difficult at all for me to give it to them. I personally am a real Beatles fan. ‘Yesterday’ is one of my favourite songs!” These words underline Robert’s motivation as well as the breadth of his music taste, but above all it was proof of his eternal youth. The music for the Vienna Ice Revue was a challenging form of pioneer work which fascinated and inspired him.”
As a matter of fact, Robert Stolz, working with storyboard writer Will Petter and his wife, choreographer Edith Petter, would go on to compose no fewer than sixteen ice shows in nineteen years (1952-1971). Armed with his musical accompaniment, the show toured most countries of Western and Eastern Europe as well as North America. In 1971, the Vienna Ice Revue was sold to American counterparts Holiday on Ice, which heralded the end of Stolz’s involvement with the ensemble.
In 1957, Stolz’s close friendship with United Nations’ diplomat Ralph Bunche inspired him to compose his UNO-Marsch, honouring the international organisation’s work to preserve world peace. “Not a menacing war march,” as Stolz explained, “but a captivating hymn of peace to support all those who strive to build a world based on justice and mutual understanding rather than on avarice and brute force. Thus, after all that had happened, my learning years with kapellmeister Watzek in the Austrian imperial army were given a higher meaning, enabling me to put into practice the lessons, which had been taught in a war situation, for the benefit of an organisation and an ideal, working to spare humanity future wars. One can only hope they will succeed.” The UNO-Marsch was first included in the Vienna New Year’s Concert in 2016, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
After having enjoyed considerable success with American audiences during the war years with his ‘A night in Vienna’ symphonic programmes, celebrating the music of Johann Strauss and other Austrian operetta composers, Robert Stolz continued embarking on such concert tours; he explained enjoying them greatly, as he saw himself as “a circus horse which needs the spotlights, the audience and the applause.” With the exception of only a few gap years, the concerts took place annually between 1946 and the second half of the 1960s, when his health became too frail to allow extensive travelling. His schedule not only included North and Latin America, but most European countries as well. In 1963, at the request of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, Stolz also brought his programme to Tel Aviv, where he did several concerts in the Fredric Mann Auditorium with classical singers Adele Leigh and Nigel Douglas. Though dissuaded by Israel authorities, Stolz insisted on having the songs performed in German – the first time ever in Israel since the state’s foundation that a concert was done in this language.
Clarissa Henry, Stolz’s stepdaughter, recalls how tense the first concert in Tel Aviv actually was: “When Nigel mounted the stage and began singing in German, everyone was holding their breath. People were looking at one another. They were unsure how to respond. Soon, however, the atmosphere became more relaxed as people calmed down – and after a few moments, the old man in the audience took the hand of his wife and looked her in the eyes the way he had last done in the 1920s. Their youth, their first love – the feeling came back to them. There were no tomatoes or rotten eggs, but a lot of tears instead.” One of the vocalists on stage that evening, Nigel Douglas: “Rarely have I ever witnessed such an enthusiastic audience as after that concert. They instantly loved Robert and were keen to show how grateful they were, not just for this concert, but also for everything he had done for Jewish colleagues and for music generally. It wasn’t until later we fully realised what the importance of that evening had actually been.”
Stolz’s performances in Israel did not go unnoticed in Western Europe. In West Germany, authorities were keen to show their gratitude for his work to improve relations between Germany and Israel, and for world peace in general, for which reason they bestowed upon him the so-called Grand Honorary Cross of Merit for the Federal Republic. In the last fifteen years of his life, Robert Stolz was heaped with medals, honorary citizenships, and oeuvre prizes in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United States, Israel, and his native Austria. One of the most exotic distinctions came in 1967, when he met Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito after a performance of ‘The revenge of the bat’ conducted by Stolz in Vienna’s Staatsoper Auditorium. Unbeknownst to Stolz, the marshal was rather fond of his melodies, particularly ‘Servus Du’.
“Tito said: “Even today, I occasionally find myself humming that melody. Your music, maestro, is still being played in all successor states of the Danube Monarchy.” “I am happy to learn this from you, your excellency. Incidentally, the first town outside of Graz where I performed as a conductor and where I composed my first operetta was Maribor.” “Maribor’s King of Waltz, right!”, and Tito patted me on the shoulder. “You deserve to be honoured for that – major!” He called for one of his aides. “I am curious how long it will take you to find the Order of the Banner for Maestro Stolz.” I don’t know if Tito had planned to give me an order. After a couple of minutes, the adjutant returned – and not empty-handedly. That is how I, former second kapellmeister of Marburg’s City Theatre, received the highest distinction the Yugoslav government can bestow upon an artist: the Order of the Yugoslav Banner with Golden Ribbon. I wish I could give the name of the order in the original language, but unfortunately, my time in Maribor being some seventy years behind me, I only remember that on the menu in small Slovenian inns ‘strudla’ meant strudel and, to order a schnitzel, one had to ask for a ‘dunajski zrezek’. Apparently Tito had learnt better German as a young man whilst working in Neudörfl near Vienna than I mastered Slovenian in Maribor. I was astonished about his vocabulary, allowing him to correct his official interpreter, who accompanied him in Vienna, quite precisely and without thinking twice.”
After World War II, Stolz continued, and ever more extensively, recording his own music as well as the wider Viennese repertoire. After having worked for Decca for two decades, Stolz signed a contract with the new Bertelsmann classical label in 1961. For Bertelsmann, Stolz recorded virtually the entire Johann Strauss catalogue as well as a wide range of operettas. Being the last representative of the heyday of Viennese music, Stolz felt he had a duty to share his expertise in the genre and pass it on to coming generations. Robert’s stepdaughter Clarissa Henry, explaining the success of the record series: “And don’t forget that these were the days of the Wirtschaftswunder – for the first time, people in Germany and Austria who loved Viennese music could afford buying these records. Robert Stolz was the last survivor. It was a godsend that he had lived to such high age, allowing him to make these recordings. He was taught this type of music as a child and he ‘lived’ it all his life. Nobody else could have done it and, of course, Bertelsmann understood this: Stolz had become a pop star!”
In 1965, Robert Stolz was granted the privilege of conducting ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the Vienna State Opera, the place where he had attended the same piece being performed by Johann Strauss sixty-six years before. Two years later, for the Expo 1967 in Montreal, Stolz composed the music to Austria’s entry, a colour motion picture called ‘Verliebt in Österreich’ (‘In love with Austria’). At the composer’s ninetieth birthday in 1970, Austria’s postal service published a stamp honouring the maestro, himself a life-long stamp collector. On the same occasion, a gala concert was held in West Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a long list of classical and light entertainment singers including Anneliese Rothenberger, Peter Minich and Paul Kuhn. At the end of the show, broadcast live on German television, Stolz himself was invited to the conductor’s platform. Clarissa Henry: “At that point, his health was already in decline, little wonder for someone at the age of ninety. This age-old man stood up from his seat and was guided onto the podium, because he couldn’t manage climbing the stairs independently. There he was, lifting the baton and conducting the ‘Gold and silver waltz’ of his renowned colleague Lehár – and he conducted it like a god, as if, all of a sudden, he was just twenty years old. It was a unique experience.”
In June 1975, whilst in West Berlin preparing a studio session for a new album, Robert Stolz succumbed to a severe pneumonia, aged 94. He was brought back to Vienna, where he lay in state at the Vienna State Opera before being buried at the Vienna Central Cemetery. On his gravestone, the following quote by Stolz has been inscribed: “If my melodies have found a place in the hearts of people, I know I have performed my task and my life has not been led gratuitously.”
Robert Stolz in the Eurovision Song Contest
The lyrics to the song were written by Stolz’s most faithful librettist, Robert Gilbert (1899-1978), with whom he had been working on operetta productions since the 1930s. Stolz, as ever, was grateful to Gilbert’s work. In the same interview, he shortly dwelt on the lyrics: “Do you know this is the first time the word ‘fasziniert’ (in English: fascinated – BT) has been used for the lyrics of a song? And that in spite of it being such a beautiful word!”
To perform the romantic ballad, Horst ‘Harry’ Winter (1914-2001) was chosen, a German singer originating from Upper Silesia. Originally taught to be a clarinettist, he had had a career as a singer in Berlin during the 1930s, but, after being released from an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1945, he chose to resettle in Austria. There, he became one of most popular singers. He toured the country with his orchestras, first the Wiener Tanzorchester, and from 1950 onwards the Horst-Winter-Tanzorchester. In 1955, he disbanded his orchestra and henceforth performed as a soloist only.
The Eurovision Song Contest was by no means the first time Horst Winter and Robert Stolz formed a team. Winter, who had been present at Vienna’s airport when Stolz returned from the United States in 1946, had performed many of the latter’s compositions with the Wiener Tanzorchester; furthermore, since 1956, Winter had regularly performed old and new songs from Stolz’s repertoire in ORF radio broadcasts, for which Stolz himself conducted the orchestra. By this stage of his career, Robert Stolz preferred to leave the writing of the orchestrations to his material to others; ORF suggested Karl Grell (1925-2003), who had written many of the arrangements for the Horst-Winter-Tanzorchester in the first half of the 1950s.
In the following six years, Karl Grell arranged all material which Stolz wrote for Horst Winter’s radio performances. Though not having taken care of the arrangements himself, Stolz conducted the radio orchestra for his songs. Grell: “When the songs were recorded, I was always present in the radio studio as an assistant, enabling me to make minor corrections in the arrangement if need be. The production process was done in the most concentrated of manners; Stolz was a perfectionist and a passionate conductor, who performed my arrangements excellently. Once, when Horst Winter slightly changed the melody whilst singing it, Stolz told him laughingly in his Viennese dialect: “My dear fellow, I am the composer, you know”.”
The 1960 Eurovision Song Contest was held the last week of March in London’s Royal Festival Hall. In the Austrian delegation, led by Wolf Mittler, Horst Winter was joined by Robert Stolz as his conductor – making Stolz the senior amongst all conductors in Eurovision history, both in terms of year of birth (1880) as of age at the time of his participation; he was 79 years old. Originally, Stolz had not intended to conduct his composition in the Eurovision final, as he explained during rehearsals: “This is a mere coincidence. I am here in London to discuss a new musical of mine which will premier in London next month.” The musical of which Stolz spoke, was called ‘Joie de vivre’, a piece based on an older play by Terence Rattigan; it premiered in the Queen’s Theatre at London’s West End in June 1960, slightly later than Stolz anticipated.
Whilst waiting for his turn to conduct the orchestra in one of the rehearsals, Robert Stolz was interviewed by Dutch journalist Henk van der Meijden. As it turns out, Stolz was not particularly fond of the voting procedure applied in the contest: “I am only doing this to help out Austrian television. Winning this song festival is pure coincidence, nothing more. The juries haven’t got a clue! Nobody can choose the best entry after having listened to all songs just once. It is utter madness. No, I don’t participate in this contest because I believe in its principals. (…) If my song doesn’t win, I won’t mind. The result doesn’t tell you anything at all. Last year, ‘Piove’ came sixth, but it went on to be the most successful song after the competition. A song needs time to blossom. There is little use in giving awards. I wrote 2,000 songs and 43 operettas. Often, while working on the music of an operetta, I thought I knew which of the songs included in the play would be most popular with the audiences – and I was always wrong! No, if someone could tell me in advance, after having listened to my new pieces once, which ones would be successful and which ones wouldn’t, I would agree to giving him fifty percent of my income for the rest of my life!”
The aforementioned journalist then watched Stolz walking to the conductor’s platform to lead the BBC Festival Orchestra: “Viennese singer Harry Winter performed ‘Du hast mich so fasziniert’, a wonderful, romantic song. Robert Stolz stood up in front of the orchestra like a lion, in spite of his being 68 years old (sic! – BT). The members of the orchestra played the score enthusiastically. Right after the song, Maestro Stolz was rewarded with a generous applause. “A very beautiful song”, the musicians told him. He smiled, adding: “Well, yes, it is romantic. I don’t like all of this modern hot music. Fortunately, interest in this genre is decreasing. Romantic music is making a comeback. Mark my words!”
With hindsight, Stolz’s reference to ‘hot music’, by which he was of course referring to rock ‘n’ roll, is rather funny, given that his words were uttered at the very beginning of a decade which was to change the face of European popular music forever – a veritable revolution ushered in by The Beatles in 1962. A couple of years later, the old maestro declared himself a fan of the Liverpudlian pop band – “Yesterday is one of my favourite songs” – but probably, and understandably, he needed time to get used to contemporary developments in the music industry.
Whatever may be true of that, the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest was won by the French entry, ‘Tom Pillibi’, performed by young Jacqueline Boyer. In spite of his spirited and professional performance, Horst Winter – twenty-seven years her senior – only managed to pick up six jury votes and a seventh place among thirteen competitors. He may have been hampered by the impression that ‘Du hast mich so fasziniert’, a song which uncontestably has considerable melodic qualities, was a tune which had been taken from a 1920s Berlin musical comedy: heart-warming, but rather outdated as well.
In Robert Stolz’s memoirs, the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest is not mentioned at all – although it must be pointed out that the 1946-1975 era was described not by the maestro himself, who had little problem admitting the failures in his professional and private life alike, but by his wife Einzi, making it by far the least interesting part of this otherwise painstakingly honest book. If Stolz really took the meagre result in London as lightly as he said he would do, remains an open question. At any rate, the Eurovision Song Contest of 1960 is no more than a footnote in an otherwise brilliant career of the man who must be ranked as one of the most important musicians in light entertainment music of the first half of the twentieth century.
Other artists on Robert Stolz
Austrian singer-songwriter Udo Jürgens: “Many of Stolz’s melodies have meanwhile become part of our collective memory – they have become so-called ‘folk songs’. This is the best that can happen to any composer. It does not occur very often and the work of many successful composers who make a lot of money during their lifetimes is being forgotten very quickly indeed. Compositions such as ‘Salomé’ or actually any of Stolz’s melodies have remained contemporary. It is possible to use Robert Stolz’s songs in jazz concerts without much problem. Because the harmonies are so wonderful, they are most fit to improvise on.” (2009)