Victor August Herbert (February 1, 1859 – May 26, 1924) was an Irish-born, German-raised American composer, cellist, and conductor, who was born February 1,1859, in Dublin, Ireland, to Protestant parents Edward Herbert, a lawyer who died in 1861, and Fanny Lover Herbert. At age three and a half, shortly after the death of his father, young Herbert and his mother moved to live with his maternal grandparents in London, England, where he received encouragement in his creative endeavors. His grandfather was the Irish novelist, playwright, poet and composer Samuel Lover. The Lovers welcomed a steady flow of musicians, writers and artists to their home. Herbert joined his mother in Stuttgart, Germany in 1867, a year after she had married a German physician, Carl Wilhelm Schmidt of Langenargen. In Stuttgart he received a strong liberal education at the Eberhard-Ludwigs-Gymnasium, which included musical training.
Herbert initially planned to pursue a career as a medical doctor. Although his stepfather was related by blood to the German royal family, his financial situation was not good by the time Herbert was a teenager. Medical education in Germany was expensive, and so Herbert focused instead on music. He initially studied the piano, flute, and piccolo but ultimately settled on the cello, beginning studies on that instrument with Bernhard Cossmann from age 15 to age 18. He then attended the Stuttgart Conservatory. After studying cello, music theory and composition under Max Seifritz, Herbert graduated with a diploma in 1879. Even before studying with Cossmann, Herbert was engaged professionally as a player in concerts in Stuttgart. His first orchestra position was as a flute and piccolo player, but he soon turned solely to the cello.
By the time he was 19, Herbert had received engagements as a soloist with several major German orchestras. He played in the orchestra of the wealthy Russian Baron Paul von Derwies for a few years and, in 1880, was a soloist for a year in the orchestra of Eduard Strauss in Vienna. Herbert joined the court orchestra in Stuttgart in 1881, where he remained for the next five years. There he composed his first pieces of instrumental music, playing the solos in the premieres of his first two large-scale works, the Suite for cello and orchestra, Op. 3 (1893) and the Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 8. In 1883, Herbert was selected by Johannes Brahms to play in a chamber orchestra for the celebration of the life of Franz Liszt, then 72 years old, near Zurich.
In 1885 Herbert became romantically involved with Therese Förster (1861–1927), a soprano who had recently joined the court opera for which the court orchestra played. Förster sang several leading roles at the Stuttgart Opera in 1885 through the summer of 1886. After a year of courtship, the couple married on August 14,1886. On October 24, 1886, they moved to the United States, as they both had been hired by Walter Damrosch and Anton Seidl to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Herbert was engaged as the opera orchestra’s principal cellist, and Förster was engaged to sing principal roles with the Met. During the voyage to America, Herbert and his wife became friends with their fellow passenger and future conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, Anton Seidl, and other singers joining the Met.
Seidl became an important mentor to Herbert and took a particular interest in fostering Herbert’s skills as a conductor. Upon arriving in New York, Herbert and Förster became active members of New York’s German music community, socializing and networking at cafes such as Luchow’s. At these cafes, Herbert handed out business cards saying, “solo cellist from the Royal Orchestra of his Majesty, the King of Wurtemberg. Instructor in cello, vocal music and harmony.” Herbert hoped to pick up extra income teaching, since he was earning only $40 to $50 a week as a cellist in the Met pit. Meanwhile, in her first season at the Met, 1886–87, Förster sang several roles in German, including the title role of the Queen of Sheba in Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, Elsa in Lohengrin, Irene in Wagner’s Rienzi, the title role in the U.S. premiere of Verdi’s Aida and Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. She earned praise from critics and audiences alike and was featured on the cover of the Musical Courier, a major music magazine of the day. The next season, she repeated the role of Elsa but then left the Met and then sang with the German-language Thalia Theatre, again earning good reviews. Although she sang for several more years, her career did not progress. Nevertheless, happy in New York, Herbert and Förster decided to remain in America after their first season at the Metropolitan Opera and eventually became citizens.
Herbert quickly became prominent in New York City’s musical scene, making his first American solo appearance on the cello in a performance of his own Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 3, with Walter Damrosch conducting the Symphony Society of New York at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 8, 1887. A warm reception quickly led to more solo engagements that year, including performances of his own Berceuse and Polonais. Herbert continued to appear as a cello soloist with major American orchestras into the 1910s. In the fall of 1887, he formed his own 40-piece orchestra, the Majestic Orchestra Internationale, which he conducted and in which he served as cello soloist. Although the orchestra survived for only one season, it performed in several of New York’s most important concert halls. The same year, he founded the New York String Quartet together with violinists Sam Franko and Henry Boewig, and violist Ludwig Schenck. The group’s first concert was on December 8, 1887, and it continued to give free-admittance concerts for several years at Steinway Hall, earning enthusiastic critical praise.
During the Summer of 1888, Herbert became Seidl’s assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s ten-week summer concert seasons on the Boardwalk at Brighton Beach, a prestigious post. Seidl’s concert seasons made Brighton Beach an important New York musical venue each summer. Herbert conducted the 80-piece orchestra in lighter works paired with more serious repertoire at summer concerts and festivals over the next few years. Herbert’s association with the New York Philharmonic ended in 1898, after eleven seasons, serving variously as an assistant conductor, guest conductor, and solo cellist. In the fall of 1888, soprano Emma Juchs hired Herbert to music direct a “concert party” tour of cities and towns in the midwest that had seen little art music, presenting a quartet of singers in varied programs of songs, operatic scenes and arias to new audiences. The accompaniment was usually pianist Adele Aus de Ohe and Herbert at the cello. The group presented their concerts to wealthy patrons at fashionable private parties and at mostly smaller venues to local audiences, educating them about opera, art songs and contemporary music.
On December 1, 1888, Seidl programmed Herbert’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 12 as part of a concert at Steinway Hall, with the composer conducting. In January, Herbert and violinist Max Bendix were the soloists in the American premiere of the challenging Double Concerto, Op. 102 for Violin, Cello and Orchestra by Brahms. Conductor Theodore Thomas then invited Herbert to conduct and perform with him in Chicago. In 1889, Herbert formed the Metropolitan Trio Club with Bendix and pianist Reinhold L. Herman. Seidl brought Herbert, Förster, Bendix, Juchs, Ohe and Lilli Lehmann, together with a large orchestra and 500-voice chorus, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in May 1889 as part of a big music festival to celebrate the new Exposition Building.
Herbert also played and conducted for the Worcester Music Festival, where he returned repeatedly through the 1890s. In the autumn of 1889, Herbert joined the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music, where he taught cello and music composition for several years. In 1890, he was appointed the conductor of the Boston Festival Orchestra, serving there in seasons through 1893, in addition to all of his conducting commitments elsewhere. In 1891, Herbert premiered an ambitious cantata, The Captive, for solo voices, chorus and full orchestra. His Irish Rhapsody (1892) enjoyed a brief but intense period of popularity. He became director of the 22nd Regimental Band of the New York National Guard in 1894, succeeding its founder, Patrick Gilmore and Gilmore’s unsuccessful immediate successor David Wallis Reeves. Herbert toured widely with the 22nd Regimental Band through 1900, performing both his own band compositions and works from the orchestral repertory that he transcibed for the band.
In 1894 Herbert composed his first operetta, Prince Ananias, at the suggestion of the manager of the Boston Ideal Opera Company for a popular troupe known as The Bostonians. The piece was well received, and Herbert soon composed three more operettas for Broadway, The Wizard of the Nile (1895), The Serenade (1897), and The Fortune Teller (1898), Beginning in 1894, when he began composing operettas, Herbert’s band marches were sometimes derived from material from the operettas. Throughout his career, Herbert was well liked by orchestra players for his modesty and unpretentiousness. Herbert continued to compose orchestral music, writing one his finest works, the Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, which premiered in 1894. In 1898, Herbert became the principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, a position he held until 1904. Under his leadership, the orchestra became a major American ensemble and was favorably compared by music critics with ensembles like the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra toured to several major cities during Herbert’s years as conductor, notably premiering Herbert’s Auditorium Festival March for the celebration of the twelfth anniversary of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre in 1901.
After a disagreement with the management of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1904, Herbert resigned, founding the Victor Herbert Orchestra. He conducted their programs of light orchestral music paired with more serious repertoire, as he had done earlier with Anton Seidl’s Brighton Beach orchestra concerts, at summer resorts and on tours for most of his remaining years. His orchestra made many acoustical recordings for both Edison Records, from 1909 to 1911, and the Victor Talking Machine Company, from 1911 to 1923. Herbert was also a cello soloist in several Victor recordings as well. In the early years of the twentieth century, Herbert championed the right of composers to profit from their works. In 1909, he testified before the United States Congress, influencing the formation and development of the Copyright Act of 1909. This law helped to secure the rights of composers to charge royalties on the sales of sound recordings. Herbert had not produce any more stage works for several years, focusing on his work with the Pittsburgh Symphony until 1904. Just before leaving that orchestra, he returned to Broadway with his first major hit, Babes in Toyland (1903). Two more successes followed, Mlle. Modiste (1905) and The Red Mill (1906), which solidified Herbert as one of the best-known American composers. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908
Herbert also worked closely with John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin and others in founding the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) on February 13, 1914, becoming its vice-president and director until his death in 1924. In 1917, Herbert won a landmark lawsuit before the United States Supreme Court that gave composers, through ASCAP, a right to charge performance fees for the public performance of their music. ASCAP commissioned a statue in Herbert’s honor in New York City’s Central Park, erected in 1927. Although Herbert’s reputation lies with his operettas, he also composed two grand operas. He searched for several years for a libretto that appealed to him, finally finding one by Joseph D. Redding called Natoma that concerned a historical story set in California. He composed the work from 1909 to 1910, and it premiered in Philadelphia on February 25, 1911 with soprano Mary Garden in the title role and the young Irish tenor John McCormack in his opera debut. The opera was well received and was repeated as part of the company’s repertory during the next three seasons. It also enjoyed performances in New York City, making its debut there on February 28, 1911.
Herbert’s other opera, Madeleine, was a much lighter work in one act. On 24 January 1914, it had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, but it was not revived beyond that season. During this period, Herbert continued to compose operettas, producing two of his most successful works, Naughty Marietta (1910) and Sweethearts (1913). Another operetta, Eileen (1917, originally entitled Hearts of Erin), was the fulfillment of Herbert’s desire to compose an Irish-themed operetta. The piece treats the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and boasts a rich score. This was the end of Herbert’s greatest period of producing full scores for operettas. By World War I, with the birth of jazz, ragtime, and new dance styles like the foxtrot and tango, Herbert reluctantly switched to writing musical comedies such as The Velvet Lady and Angel Face (both 1919). These featured less elaborate ensembles and simpler songs for less classically trained singers than the European-style operettas that had dominated his earlier career. Herbert, during the last years of his career, was frequently asked to compose ballet music for the elaborate production numbers in Broadway revues and the shows of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, among others. He was also a contributor to the Ziegfeld Follies every year from 1917 to 1924. The most successful work of his later career was Orange Blossoms (1921), which included the popular waltz song, “A Kiss in the Dark”.
As a composer, Herbert is chiefly remembered for his operettas but was one of the most versatile and important figures in American music at the turn of the twentieth century. Herbert was a prolific composer, producing two operas, one cantata, 43 operettas, incidental music to 10 stage productions, 31 compositions for orchestra, nine band compositions, nine cello compositions, five violin compositions with piano or orchestra, 22 piano compositions, one flute and clarinet duet with orchestra, numerous songs, including many for the Ziegfeld Follies, and other works, 12 choral compositions, and numerous orchestrations of works by other composers, among other compositions. He also composed The Fall of a Nation (1916), one of the first original orchestral scores for a full-length film. The score was thought to be lost, but it turned up in the film-music collection of the Library of Congress.
A healthy man throughout his life, Herbert, one of twentieth century America’s first musical stars died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 65 on May 26, 1924, shortly after his final show, The Dream Girl, began its pre-Broadway run in New Haven, Connecticut. He was survived by his wife and two children, Ella Victoria Herbert Bartlett and Clifford Victor Herbert. After Herbert’s death, little of his instrumental music continued to be performed. His Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, is an exception to this. Some of his forgotten works have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity within the last couple decades, including the Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 3 (1884), his earliest known composition, and his Cello Concerto No. 1. Of his large-scale orchestral works, Herbert’s tone poem Hero and Leander (1901) is his most important. Another important work that Herbert wrote for the PSO is Columbus, Op. 35, a four-movement programmatic suite; it was the last large-scale symphonic work that Herbert composed.
The following work by Herbert: are included in my collection:
American Fantasy (or Fantasia, 1893).
Auditorium Festival March (1901).
Babes in Toyland (1903): Selections, including March of the Toys.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in DM, op. 8.
Cello Concerto No. 2 in em, op. 30.
Columbus Suite (1903).
Five Pieces for Cello and Strings (1892/1900).
Irish Rhapsody (1893),
Natoma (1913): Selections.
The Red Mill (1906): Selections.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources