Victor Herbert

Arguably the most important theatrical composer of the early 1900s, Victor Herbert was an important link connecting the European musical style of old with the Tin Pan Alley sounds of turn of the century Manhattan. He was among the first to embrace technological advances of the day, as well as an advocate for composer’s rights.

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1859, Herbert’s father passed away when he was very young, leaving him to spend his formative years in Kent, England with his grandmother and grandfather, noted novelist and songwriter Samuel Lover. In 1867, his mother married a German physician, and the two were reunited in Stuttgart, where his musical education began. A standout cellist, Herbert studied at the Stuttgart Conservatory, and performed in orchestras throughout Europe. The light music he performed with the Strauss Orchestra in Vienna, under the direction of Eduard Strauss, left a lasting impression and later became one of his musical calling cards.

Returning to Stuttgart to perform with the court orchestra, Herbert married soprano Therese Förster from the court opera. A well known musician in her own right, Förster was offered the lead in New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company’s first production of Verdi’s Aida. Relocating to the United States would prove to be a big step, and in a bold move, Madame Förster-Herbert refused to sign a contract unless her husband was offered a place in the Met Orchestra. Herbert made a mark in his new country with ease, playing with the New York String Quartet and succeeding the great Patrick Gilmore as conductor of the 22nd Regimental Band of the New York National Guard.

He completed his first operetta in 1894, Prince Ananias, followed by The Wizard of the Nile, his first international success, a year later. Though his wife would step out of the limelight, she would continue to be his muse, as many of his operettas showcased soprano talent. Herbert was now the toast of Broadway, and enjoyed the clout that came with it. His light opera work not only recalled the Viennese tradition of old, it also featured a light hearted “Americanized” sense of humor.

In 1898, Herbert began a four year run as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, touring the United States and guiding its evolution into a world class orchestra. 1903’s Babes in Toyland fostered the beginning of a string of musicals, including Mile. Modiste, The Red Mill, and Naughty Marietta, making Herbert a household name. Herbert founded the Victor Herbert Orchestra, which toured extensively and was among the first to produce commercially available phonographic recordings for the Eldridge R. Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine Company (now RCA Victor).

Although light opera made up the bulk of Herbert’s repertoire, he wrote volumes of works in a variety of genres. In all, he composed 43 operettas, 31 pieces for orchestra, nine band compositions, numerous works for individual instruments, a cantata, incidental music for the Ziegfeld Follies, and two full operas, including Natoma, which marked the debut of legendary Irish tenor John McCormack.

Herbert testified before Congress in an effort to establish the collection of royalties from sound recordings on behalf of composers, resulting in The Copyright Law of 1909. Five years later, he furthered the campaign as a founding member of The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which he served as vice-president for a decade.

In true trailblazing spirit, Herbert was the first composer to write a musical score exclusively for American cinema, the 1916 silent film The Fall of a Nation. Continuing his stage work, a lifelong dream to compose an Irish operetta was realized with the 1917 production of Eileen (aka The Hearts of Erin), based on the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The last work Herbert premiered in his lifetime, A Suite of Serenades, featured a symbolic changing of the guard. Taking place at New York’s Aeolian Hall during the famous Experiment in Modern Music concert in 1924, the program also featured the legendary premier of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A few short months later, Victor Herbert suffered a fatal heart attack. His final work, The Dream Girl, was produced posthumously.

Not only did Herbert play an important role in shaping modern music business practices, but many of his stage works are still performed and his style served as a foundation for the composers of The Great American Songbook, securing his legacy in the annals of music history.

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