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  • Richard Genée
    written by Prof. Norbert Rubey

    Genée (Franz Friedrich) Richard (b. Danzig, 7 February 1823; d. Baden, 15 June 1895), theatre conductor, composer, librettist, translator and arranger.

    Ancestry, Education, Family

    Franz Friedrich Richard Genée was born in Danzig on 7 February 1823. He was the son of Johann Friedrich Genée, a singer, actor, theatre director and author of works for the stage, and his wife Caroline. Richard had three younger siblings: Rudolph, a literary scholar; Ottilie, a soubrette; and Elisabeth.

    He attended a grammar school in Berlin and then began to study medicine. He did not complete the course, but thanks to his father he was able to receive a solid musical education, studying composition with Adolph Stahlknecht and musical theory with Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn.

    On 15 August 1850 Richard Genée married Emilie L’Orange from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia). They did not have any children, but they adopted Anna Barbara, the fourth child of the composer Friedrich von Flotow and Anna (née Theen), his second wife. After almost forty years of marriage Emilie died on 31 January 1890, aged 71. Richard Genée died at Baden near Vienna on 15 June 1895 and was buried in the cemetery there two days later.

    Theatre Conductor

    For the first two-and-half decades of his career Genée worked as a conductor at a number of German-language theatres in many cities, including Danzig (1843), Reval (now Tallinn in  Estonia, 1848), Riga (1849), Cologne (1854), Düsseldorf (1855), Mainz (1857), Schwerin (1862), Amsterdam (1863), and Prague (1864). At the beginning of the 1868-69 season he was engaged to conduct at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna by Friedrich Strampfer, at that time its director, and was soon promoted to the post of first conductor. He remained in this position until 1878, the year when he stopped working as a theatre conductor in order to devote himself entirely to his creative activities.


    Genée’s oeuvre consists of more than 300 vocal compositions (songs, duets, terzettos, choruses for male voices etc.), but his musical output is definitely centred on operetta and comic opera, and he composed more than thirty such works. His first works for the stage appeared during his time as a conductor at various German-language theatres, and they achieved considerable but not lasting success. They include Der Geiger aus Tirol (1857), Der Musikfeind (1862), Die Generalprobe (1862), Rosita (1864) and Der schwarze Prinz (1866). Some of these titles give a clear indication that many of these works were inspired by short-lived trends and fashions. Together with Friedrich von Flotow, Genée composed the romantic opera Am Runenstein (Prague 1868).

    Genée’s engagement at the Theater an der Wien marked the beginning of an enormously productive period in his creative work. This was the time when his most successful works for the stage were written: the comic operas, Der Seekadett (1876) and Nanon, die Wirtin vom goldenen Lamm (1877), both first performed at the Theater an der Wien. Genée’s scores show him to be an experienced man of the theatre. Many of his ensemble scenes and finales reveal him as a composer with a thorough musical education and well versed in the technique of setting texts. It was these skills that led Maximilian Steiner to give Richard Genée the task of supporting Johann Strauss II, who was still inexperienced in composing for the stage. There is evidence of the considerable contribution which Genée made to the composition of Strauss’s operettas, from Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871) to Eine Nacht in Venedig (1883), in the original autograph scores. If Genée had not helped with its composition Strauss’s best-known operetta Die Fledermaus (1874) would not exist.

    Librettist, Translator, Arranger

    In the 1870s and 1880s Genée was one of the most important translators of operetta librettos in French and English. Several of these then provided the basis for librettos he wrote himself or in many cases in co-operation with F. Zell (real name Camillo Walzel) or other authors. Genée’s translations or adaptations of the librettos of the works of Jacques Offenbach, Hervé (real name Florimond Ronger), and Charles Lecocq played a significant role in their reception in German-speaking countries. In all Genée wrote more than sixty librettos for operettas and related genres, to be set to music not only by him but also by numerous other composers. It was Zell and Genée who provided the librettos for the most important Viennese operettas of the so-called ‘Golden Age’, for example Franz von Suppè’s Fatinitza (1876) and Boccaccio (1879), Carl Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent (1882) and Gasparone (1884), Johann Strauss II’s Cagliostro in Wien (1875), Der lustige Krieg (1881), Eine Nacht in Venedig (1883). The libretto for Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus was written by Genée. It is based on Le Réveillon, a vaudeville by the French writers Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and a German adaptation of this by Carl Haffner (real name Carl Wilhelm Schlachter).

    Importance for Vienna and Viennese Operetta

    When Genée came to Vienna he was already forty-five years old. Despite his north German background he succeeded very well in identifying the Viennese element in the music being written at the time and making use of it in utterly charming melodies. Even if Genée’s own compositions for the stage were not performed much outside the German-speaking areas and now are largely forgotten, his work with Suppè, Millöcker, Strauss and other composers gives him an international importance. His own musical creativity, his practical experience in the theatre and a felicitous ability to empathize enabled him to achieve much more than was customary for a librettist when it came to making decisions in matters regarding the overall configuration of the drama or even the details of setting words to music. Indeed Genée could provide active support, of which his co-operation with Johann Strauss II is an impressive example. The City of Vienna honoured Genée by naming a street after him, the Genéegasse in the city’s thirteenth district, in accordance with a resolution passed by the city council on 20 September 1951.

    Norbert Rubey

    English translation: Leigh Bailey


    Selected literature

    The New Grove. Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Second edition, vol. 9, p. 648,  London / New York 2002.