The Great Victor Herbert

Victor Herbert circa 1895

By Jack Callahan, Contributor
October / November 2012

The Irish composer of such American favorites as “Naughty Marietta,” and “Sweethearts” is the subject of a five-month-long exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Jack Callahan tells Herbert’s story.

Before George M. Cohan was packing the theaters, another Irishman’s star shone bright on Broadway.

Victor Herbert, one of the most appreciated composers to ever work on the Great White Way, had a prolific career that embraced a variety of musical genres. In addition to forty operettas and two operas, he wrote the music for several Ziegfeld Follies, did musical scores for motion pictures, composed for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and between 1900 and 1915, wrote 23 musicals.

Born in Dublin on February 1, 1859, to Edward Herbert and Fanny Lover, Victor actually spent most of his life outside of Ireland. His father, a lawyer, died in Paris only two years after Victor’s birth, and Fanny and her young son moved to England to live with her father, Samuel Lover.

Lover, a painter, musician and writer, best remembered for his novels Rory O’More and Handy Andy, was a fierce Irish nationalist, and his home was a gathering place for other Irish nationalists and members of the intelligentsia. At parties Fanny would play the piano and sing Irish folk songs to her young son. “She used to sing them before I could talk,” Herbert recalled in a 1921 interview.

When Victor was seven, Samuel Lover encouraged Fanny to take her young son to Germany, where he believed the quality of the education was better. She did so, moving first to Langenargen, where she met and married a German physician, who moved the family to Stuttgart.

As a schoolboy, Victor initially felt no strong urge to study music, focusing instead on academics. He only took up the cello upon the encouragement of his mother and one of his school friends. However, he undertook the study of the instrument with such zeal and tenacity that his grades began to suffer. This same tenacity would characterize Herbert’s undertakings throughout his life, and combined with his natural talents, would ensure his success.

Although his mother did not want her son to become a professional musician, she had to concede to his prodigious talent and allowed him to commence studies with Professor Cossman, one of the best concert cellists of the day. Herbert’s talent flowered under Cossman’s tutelage and he soon gained enough expertise to be employed by several orchestras.

Upon completing his formal education, Herbert performed as a soloist in Germany, France and Italy, and in 1882, he was appointed first cellist of the Strauss Orchestra in Vienna. In 1883, he returned to Stuttgart to play with the Stuttgart court orchestra and study composition with Max Seifrittz. He wrote his performance-worthy “Suite in F for Cello and Orchestra” only four months into his study of composition.

In 1886, Herbert married Therese Forster, a prima donna of the Vienna Opera, and the two immigrated to the United States at the invitation of Walter Damrosch, to join the Metropolitan Opera. They also became parents of a daughter, Ella, and a son, Clifford.

Herbert quickly established himself as the preeminent cellist in the United States. He became first cellist with the New York Philharmonic, performing as a soloist in January 1887. He also embraced conducting. In 1891, he conducted the Boston Festival Orchestra. In 1893, he succeeded another Irish American, Patrick Gilmore, as the conductor of the 22nd Regiment Band in New York. He was the conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1898 to 1904, and composed several pieces for that orchestra. Later, he served as a guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

The turning point in Herbert’s career came in 1893, when his friend William MacDonald, manager of “The Bostonians” asked him to write a light opera for his company. Herbert wrote “Prince Ananias” which was received with critical acclaim when it opened in New York City in November, 1894.

Herbert had found his niche – he went on to write some 40 operettas. Some of his most popular include “The Fortune Teller,” “The Red Mill,” “Naughty Marietta,” and “Sweethearts.” The original Broadway run of “The Red Mill” lasted 274 performances, while a 1945 revival ran for 531 performances.

His most famous and enduring operetta is “Babes in Toyland.” The original Broadway production ran for 192 performances. It has been presented twice on the movie screen; the first version stars Laurel and Hardy, while the second version features fellow Irish American Ray Bolger. “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” a favorite among televised Christmas specials, is based on “Babes in Toyland.”

Two of Mr. Herbert’s operettas, “Naughty Marietta” and “Sweethearts,” were made into movies starring the famous singing duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and he is credited as being one of the first composers to create an original screen score – for the 1916 film Fall of a Nation.

Many famous songs including “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” “Italian Street Song,” “Everyday Is Ladies Day With Me,” “Indian Summer,” “Toyland,” and “March of the Toys,” owe their score to Herbert. He also composed the stirring “Irish Rhapsody” and “Baltimore Centennial March.”

In addition to his musical endeavors, Herbert was instrumental in the formation of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and he fought radio broadcasters who tried to use popular and classical music without paying royalties.

In his biography of Herbert, Joseph Kaye describes the composer as “happy, deep-laughing, witty, appreciative of both cabbage and caviar, a good friend, a Rabelaisian story-teller. . . a man who ardently loved the good things in life.”

A connoisseur of food, especially German, Herbert would frequent Luchow’s on Fourteenth Street near Fourth Avenue in New York City where his favorite dishes were boiled beef with horseradish sauce and wine kraut, veal chops au naturel and sirloin steak fried over charcoal with grated horseradish, onions, and potatoes spread over it. Kaye claimed that Herbert could go into “rhapsodic flights over a dish.”

Herbert had a keen memory and an even keener ear, so that if the second fiddlers played a G flat instead of an A, he would know it. While normally placid and genial, in rehearsal he could be tyrannical ,unleashing invectives laced with profanities. Still, he was well-respected among musicians as a master and the members of his orchestra strove to please him. He in turn was very generous to them, known for being an easy “touch.”

Although he spent the greater part of his life outside Ireland, Herbert’s commitment to the country of his birth never wavered. He served as vice president of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and composed the group’s official song, “The Hail of the Friendly Sons.” He founded the organization’s glee club and accompanied the great  tenor John McCormack in a performance to benefit the club.

At the 1915 Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Day dinner, Herbert spoke of the fierce loyalty he and many Irish emigrants retained for their native home: “On this day when the hearts of Irishmen throughout the world are beating faster. . . we renew the everlasting love we feel for our old home across the sea.”

Herbert’s commitment to Irish freedom resulted in his composition of such songs as “The New Ireland,” “God Spare the Emerald Isle,” and “Old Ireland Shall Be Free.”

The American Irish Historical Society, which counted Herbert among its members, has a copy of Judge Daniel F. Cohalan’s eulogy of Victor Herbert which recounts how Mr. Herbert zealously advocated Irish freedom from England, even when it was a politically unpopular position to take. “He contributed in no small way to the creation of the great movement for Irish freedom which aroused the Race throughout the world and brought into existence the Irish Free State, “ Cohalan stated.

In March, 1916, at the Irish Race Convention, Herbert was elected the first president of The Friends of Irish Freedom. Victor Herbert died on May 26, 1924, and was buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Shortly after his death the music critic Deems Taylor praised Herbert in the New York World, saying that Herbert’s popularity as a composer exceeded that of any other in America: “Victor Herbert raised light opera music to a degree of harmonic sophistication that it had never before reached.”

The city of New York erected a statue of Victor Herbert in Central Park. In 1939, Hollywood paid homage to him with the aptly titled biographical film The Great Victor Herbert. On May 13, 1940, the United States government also honored him by issuing a postage stamp bearing his likeness. Still, the most timeless legacy of this remarkable man remains the catalogue of his glorious melodies we carry in our hearts and heads.

“The Musical Worlds of Victor Herbert” features items from the Library of Congress’ Victor Herbert Collection, including original Herbert scores of both concert and show music, printed copies of his music, programs, publicity materials and photographs, as well as the composer’s death mask. The exhibition is free and open to the public, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, from Aug. 16, 2012 to Jan. 26, 2013. Visit www.loc.gov for more information.

4 Responses to “The Great Victor Herbert”

  1. You might enjoy the thoughtful piece about Victor Herbert and the uncertain nature of composers’ legacies that Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning Jeremy Geffen contributed to our blog earlier this year: http://www.carnegiehall.org/BlogPost.aspx?id=4294984286.

    • Mr Jarlath MacNamara says:

      A wonderful article which unfortunately completely forgets one of the greatest of all conductors in the 19th Century , P S Gilmore 1829-1892 and who as the leading entertainer of 19th Century America opened doors for many including John Philip Sousa and of course Victor Herbert . Like Herbert, Gilmore was Irish born and emigrated from the famine and led America through the Civil War as Bandmaster General and as an equal to the Europeans with his inaugural 1878 Tour of Europe . And after Gilmore’s death Herbert assumed the baton of the greatest Musical organisation in America , Gilmore’s 22nd Regiment Band , Herbert was very much a fan of what Gilmore had achieved for America and for the Irish in America .

  2. This is an appealing article about Victor Herbert. I work with VHRP LIVE! a musical performance company uniquely devoted to Victor Herbert. In fact called Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! We are presenting Herbert’s 1910 operetta Naughty Marietta and hope you and some folks from Irish America will like to attend! The performance is one night only Thursday April 23rd at 8pm in New York City at 120 West 69 St in Christ and St Stephen’s Church. It would be great to have you in the audience and introduce you to VHRP LIVE!

  3. Judith Clark says:

    Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia is presenting one of Victor Herbert’s most beautiful productions – Irish operetta, Eileen this November 2018. We’re looking forward to bringing this gorgeous Irish ode to life for the True Sons of Erin in Australia!
    Updated libretto courtesy of Alyce Mott of the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project based in New York.

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