Henry Louis Reginald De Koven (April 3, 1859 – January 16, 1920) was an American music critic, conductor, and prolific composer, particularly of comic operas. who helped establish the style of American light opera. De Koven was born in Middletown, CT, on April 3, 1859. In 1870, when Reginald was eleven, the family moved to England, where he received the majority of his education. He graduated from St John’s College of Oxford University in England in 1879 and undertook various musical studies at Stuttgart, Germany, with Speidel and with Lebert and Pruckner. He studied composition at Frankfurt, Germany with Dr. Hauff, and after staying there for six months moved on to Florence, Italy, where he studied singing with Vanuccini. Study in operatic composition followed, first with Richard Genée, in Vienna, Austria, and then with Léo Delibes, in Paris, France.
De Koven returned to the U.S. in 1882 to live in Chicago, IL, where he worked in a brokerage firm until his marriage to Anna Farwell, and later lived in New York City, NY. In 1883, De Koven started a dry-goods business that became very successful. With the steady income, he was able to return to music. He was able to find scope for his wide musical knowledge as a critic with Chicago’s Evening Post, Harper’s Weekly, and the New York World. Between 1887 and 1913, De Koven composed twenty light operas, beginning with The Begum in1887 (libretto by Harry B. Smith), in addition to hundreds of songs (over 450), orchestral works, two piano sonatas, and ballets. The following year he again teamed with Smith to compose the opera Don Quixote. While Victor Herbert’s operettas were heavily influenced by those of continental operetta composers, De Koven’s works were patterned after Gilbert and Sullivan.
From 1902 to 1904, De Koven conducted the Washington, D.C. symphony, which he helped organize. His wife, Anna de Koven, was a well-known socialite, novelist and amateur historian who published her works under the name “Mrs. Reginald de Koven.” De Koven’s greatest success was Robin Hood, also with libretto by Harry B. Smith, which premiered in Chicago in 1890 but was performed all across the country and received more than 3,000 performances. It played in New York at the Knickerbocker Theatre and in London, in 1891, and at New York’s Garden Theatre in 1892, and it continued to be revived for many years. Many of his songs became popular, especially “Oh Promise Me” from Robin Hood, with words by Clement Scott, which was one of the biggest song successes of its time and remains a wedding standard.
De Koven’s other operettas included The Fencing Master (1892, Casino Theatre, New York); Rob Roy, first produced in Detroit, MI, 1894; The Highwayman (1897, Herald Square Theatre, New York); Maid Marian (1901); The Little Duchess (1901, Casino Theatre, New York); and The Beauty Spot (1909, Herald Square Theatre). The music press doubted that De Koven could compose serious operas. His opera The Canterbury Pilgrims, with a libretto by poet and dramatist Percy MacKaye, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1917. He composed a second opera, Rip Van Winkle, also with a libretto by MacKaye, but died on Jan. 16, 1920, in Chicago, IL, before it was performed in 1920 in Chicago. Important though he was as a composer of music for the American theatre, DeKoven’s work was subsequently overshadowed by his successors who wrote in a new style. Few of his operas and operettas have been revived and his reputation rests on the considerable success he enjoyed in his lifetime.
My collection includes the following work by Reginald De Koven:
Robin Hood: Complete Opera
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources