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Sigmund Romberg and “The Student Prince”

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Sigmund Romberg (July 29, 1887–November 9, 1951) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who spent most of his adult life in the United States, specialized in romantic comedy that included songs and dancing, and is best known for his musicals and operettas, particularly The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928). Romberg was born on July 29, 1887, as Siegmund Rosenberg to the Jewish family of Adam and Clara Rosenberg, in Gross-Kanizsa (Hungarian: Nagykanizsa) during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy period, now part of Hungary. In 1889 Romberg and his family moved to Belišće, which was then in Hungary, where he attended a primary school. As a child, he showed musical ability early on and would develop talent as both a violinist and organist. Influenced by his father, Romberg learned to play the violin at six and the piano at eight . He enrolled at Osijek gymnasium in 1897, where he was a member of the high school orchestra.

Despite his musical proclivities, Romberg went to Vienna in his late teens to study engineering, but he also took composition lessons from Heuberger while living there. Apparently his will to take on a profession in engineering was never very strong, and he decided on a career in music by his early twenties. After a stint in the Hungarian army during the Balkan War, he moved to the United States in 1909, believing that the level of competition in music would be lower there and thus offer him greater opportunity, and, after a brief stint working in a pencil factory, was employed as a pianist in Hungarian cafés. Romberg eventually became conductor of an orchestra at Andre Bustanoby’s bistro at Broadway and 39th Street, a large and fashionable restaurant in New York, where he was instrumental in developing the practice of playing dance music for the patrons of such establishments, and published a few songs, which, despite their limited success, brought him to the attention of the Shubert brothers, who in 1914 hired him to write music for their Broadway theater shows.

That year Romberg wrote his first successful Broadway revue, the Winter Garden Theatre show entitled The Whirl of the World. He then contributed songs to several American musical adaptations of Viennese operettas, including the successful The Blue Paradise (1915). Even more successful was the musical Maytime in 1917 with story and lyrics by R. J. Young and C. Wood. Both involved love across generations and included nostalgic waltzes, along with more modern American dance music. At the same time, Romberg contributed songs to the Shuberts’ popular revues The Passing Show of 1916 and The Passing Show of 1918 and to two vehicles for Al Jolson, Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916), an extravaganza burlesqueing the familiar story, and Sinbad (1918), an Arabian Nights-themed musical. Romberg wrote another Jolson vehicle in 1921, Bombo. Romberg often used the music of other composers, as in the 1920 effort, Poor Little Ritz Girl, which used songs of Richard Rogers. Little is known about Romberg’s first wife, Eugenia, who appears on a 1920 federal census form as being Austrian. His second wife was Lillian Harris, whom he married on March 28, 1925, in Paterson, NJ.

Romberg’s adaptation of melodies by Franz Schubert for Blossom Time (1921, produced in the UK as Lilac Time) was a great success. He subsequently wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince (1924) from the German operetta Alt Heidelberg by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster, with the songs “Deep in My Heart” and “Drinking Song;” The Desert Song (1926) remembered for the title song and “One Alone;” and The New Moon (1928) with “Lover, Come Back to Me” the melody for which was adapted in part from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s June: Barcarolle; all of which are in a style similar to the Viennese operettas of Franz Lehár. He also wrote Princess Flavia (1925), an operetta based on The Prisoner of Zenda. His other works, My Maryland (1927), a successful romance; Rosalie (1928), together with George Gershwin; May Wine (1935), with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, about a blackmail plot; and Up in Central Park with H. and Dorothy Fields (1945), are closer in style to the American musical of that era. In 1933, Romberg composed an operetta, Rose de France, produced in Paris. He also wrote a number of film scores beginning in 1929, and few years later he moved to Hollywood to adapt his own work for film. His work on the M-G-M film musical, The Girl of the Golden West, was perfectly suited to box-office champion Jeannette MacDonald.

MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who appeared in an MGM adaptation of The New Moon in 1940, regularly recorded and performed his music. In 1942, Romberg formed his own orchestra and went on concert tour throughout the United States, leading a series of concerts, “An Evening with Sigmund Romberg.” During the war years he was not very productive as a composer, but he gave freely of his time to entertain American troops during the Second World War, and with few breaks over the next decade, he continued to lead his ensemble until his death. Columbia Records asked Romberg to conduct orchestral arrangements of his music which he had played in concerts for a series of recordings from 1945 to 1950 that were issued both on 78-rpm and 33-1/3 rpm discs. There have also been periodic revivals of the operettas. Romberg died on November 9, 1951, aged 64, of a stroke at his Ritz Towers Hotel suite in New York City and was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Romberg was the subject of the 1954 Stanley Donen-directed film Deep in My Heart, in which he was portrayed by José Ferrer.

As a composer Sigmund Romberg was a colorful and gregarious character in a bygone era of show business when melodic content really counted. He was also a man who never had any overblown illusions about his work. He always said his songs and shows were distinctly middle-brow and he was happy to supply them to an equally middle-brow audience that obviously approved. Over a period of thirty years, Romberg would write more than nine hundred songs for 66 stage shows and seven screen musicals. Until the popularity of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows of the 1940s and 1950s eclipsed them on the touring and stock circuits, Romberg’s shows were the undisputed kings of this field. Further, Romberg managed to have what would now be called a chart hit. When I Grow Too Old to Dream, written with Oscar Hammerstein II for M-G-M’s The Night is Young, sold in the millions on 78 rpm discs in 1935.

The following work by Sigmund Romberg is contained in my collection:

The Student Prince (1924): Selections.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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