Rudolf Friml

Rudolf Friml

Friml, Rudolf (Charles Rudolf Friml), 1879-1972, American composer, b. Prague. Friml lived in the United States after 1906. The best-known of his 33 light operas are The Firefly (1912), Rose Marie (1924), and The Vagabond King (1925). Friml's operettas generally concerned gallants and princesses moving through fairy-tale complexities of plot. Presented on stage, on Broadway and in road companies and revived in film versions, his operettas succumbed to the change in musical tastes by the late 1940s.
Rudolf Friml (December 7, 1879 - November 12, 1972) was a composer of operettas, musicals and songs, as well as a pianist.

Early life

Born in Prague, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now capital of the Czech Republic, Friml showed aptitude for music at an early age. His abilities gained him acceptance into the Prague Conservatory where he studied music composition with Antonín Dvořák. He completed the six-year course in three years. While studying at the conservatory he began to compose light songs and airs. After graduation he took a position as accompanist to violinist Jan Kubelik. He toured with Kubelik twice in the United States and at the end of the second tour remained there to compose. He made his American piano debut at Carnegie Hall in 1904 and premiered his Piano Concerto in B-Major in 1906 with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch. He settled for a brief time in Los Angeles where he married Mathilda Baruch (1909). They had two children, Charles Rudolf (Jr.) (1910) and Marie Lucille (1911). After a divorce, he later married Kay Wong.

The Firefly

One of the most popular theatrical forms in the early decades of the 20th century in America was the operetta, and its most famous composer was Irish-born Victor Herbert. It was announced in 1912 that operetta diva Emma Trentini would be starring in a new operetta on Broadway by Herbert with lyricist Otto Harbach entitled The Firefly. Shortly before the writing of the operetta, Trentini appeared in a special performance of Herbert's Naughty Marietta conducted by Herbert himself. When Trentini refused to sing "Italian Street Song" for the encore, an enraged Herbert stormed out of the orchestra pit refusing any further work with Trentini.

Arthur Hammerstein, the operetta's sponsor, frantically began to search for another composer. Not finding anyone who could compose as well as Herbert, Hammerstein settled on the almost unknown Friml due to his classical training. After a month of work, Friml produced a glittering score for what would be his first theatrical success. After the success of The Firefly, Friml followed with three more operettas that were successful, though not as successful as The Firefly. These were High Jinks (1913), Katinka (1915) and You're in Love (1917). He also contributed songs to a musical in 1915 entitled The Peasant Girl.

Friml's greatest successes

Friml wrote his most famous operettas in the 1920s. In 1924, he wrote Rose Marie. This operetta, on which Friml collaborated with lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach and co-composer Herbert Stothart, was a hit worldwide and a few of the songs from it also became hits including "The Mounties" and "Indian Love Call". Friml's use of murder as part of the plot as well as his integrating the music and the plot was ground-breaking for its time.

After Rose Marie's success came two other operettas, The Vagabond King in 1925, with lyrics by Brian Hooker and W.H. Post, and The Three Musketeers in 1928, with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and Clifford Grey, based on Dumas's famous swashbuckling novel. In addition, Friml contributed to Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies of 1921 and 1923.

Friml also wrote music for many films during the 1930s, often songs adapted from previous work. The Vagabond King, Rose Marie, and The Firefly were all made into films and included at least some of Friml's music. Oddly enough, his operetta version of The Three Musketeers was never filmed, despite the fact that the novel itself has been filmed many times - once as a musical with Don Ameche and The Ritz Brothers. Like his contemporary, Ivor Novello, Friml was sometimes ridiculed for the sentimental and insubstantial nature of his compositions and often dubbed as trite. Friml was also criticized for the old-fashioned, Old World sentiments found in his works. By the end of the 1930s, Friml had fallen out of fashion.

Later years and legacy

Friml's last stage musical was Music Hath Charms in 1934. A few of his works have seen revivals on Broadway, these include a 1943 production of The Vagabond King and a 1984 production of The Three Musketeers. "The Donkey Serenade" from the film version of The Firefly, "The Mounties" and "Indian Love Call" are still frequently heard, often in romantic parody or comic situations. His piano music is also often performed.

In a November 1939 issue of Time magazine Friml claimed that Victor Herbert communicated to him through a Ouija board. He said that Herbert told him, "Play five notes." After he played them he said Herbert responded, "Quite charming.

His two sons also worked as musicians. Rudolf Jr. was a big band leader in the 1930s and 40s, and William, a son from a later marriage, was a composer and arranger in Hollywood. In 1969, Friml was celebrated by Ogden Nash on the occasion of his 90th birthday in a couplet which ended: "I trust your conclusion and mine are similar: 'Twould be a happier world if it were Frimler." Friml died in Los Angeles in 1972 and was interred in the "Court of Honor" at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. On August 18, 2007, a death notice in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Kay Wong Ling Friml (born March 16, 1913), last wife of Rudolf, died on August 9 and would be buried with him in Forest Lawn.

Satircal songwriter Tom Lehrer made a reference to Friml on his first album, Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953). The song "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz" includes the lyric, "Your lips were like wine (if you'll pardon the simile) / The music was lovely, and quite Rudolf Friml-y."



  • Cambridge Guide to Theatre, 1992.
  • Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show, 5th Ed. Hal Leonard, New York. 1996.
  • Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. Ziff-Davis, New York. 1960.
  • Ganzl, Kurt. The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre (3 Volumes). New York: Schirmer Books, 2001.
  • Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1983.
  • Bordman, Gerald. American Operetta. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

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