Giant of American musicals
Composed operettas, cantatas, and top Tin Pan Alley songs
Victor August Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland on February 1, 1859. After the death of his father in 1861, Herbert and his mother moved to the country home of his grandfather, painter, novelist and composer, Samuel Lover. The formative years in Herbert’s youth were defined by watching his grandfather paint with the constant exposure to music in their daily lives. A constant stream of writers and composers visited the Lover estate planting the seeds of music in Herbert’s young mind.
By 1866, Herbert's mother had remarried to a German doctor and the family moved to Stuttgart, Germany. The young boy received his primary education in the German Gymnasium and happily looked forward to becoming a doctor. By the time Victor was a teenager, family financial conditions forced him to abandon the idea of any expensive medical education and Victor turned to music. He studied piano, flute and piccolo landing an orchestral position performing, however after an embarrassing piccolo solo, Herbert turned his attention to the cello. Herbert became a renowned cellist and by the age of 19 had played with every major orchestra throughout Germany, performing with Baron Paul von Derwies’ private orchestra in Lugano and one year with the Eduard Strauss Orchestra in Vienna. Eventually, Herbert won a position in the Royal Court Orchestra of Stuttgart flourishing as a soloist.
Herbert continued his formal education at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music where he studied with Max Seifriz and focused on theory, harmony and composition. During this period with the Court Orchestra, he was chosen to be among 30 hand picked members recommended by Brahms to play at a special celebration of the life of composer Franz Liszt. At the concert, Herbert witnessed the inspiring performances by Liszt, Brahms and other top composers and musicians - an experience Herbert would number as one of his grandest memories.
In 1883, Herbert served as both soloist and composer of his own earliest known work, "Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op.3." The work established his reputation as a reputable composer. In 1885, he met the young soprano Therese Forster who had secured a position at the Stuttgart orchestra as a prima donna. Forster had caught the eye of Frank and Walter Damrosch of the 4-year-old Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City and when the Damrosch’s offered a contract to Forster, she accepted on the condition that Herbert would also be given a job in the orchestra. In August 14, 1886, the couple married and set sail for their new, and permanent home in America. On November 8, 1886, Foerster made her successful debut in Karl Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba at New York's Met. Soon after that, Victor applied for American citizenship.
From 1887-1904, Herbert worked as a cellist in the New York orchestra’s of Theordore Thomas and Anton Seidl, and upon Patrick S. Gilmore’s 1892 death, Herbert took over direction of his 22nd Regiment Band, which he helmed until accepting the position of principal conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1898. By 1904, Herbert was leading his own Victor Herbert Orchestra. During his career as a cellist, Herbert was composing music that undoubtedly was a mixture of European romanticism and American tradition. He is arguably the greatest influence on American theater, transitioning it from vaudeville and variety acts to operatic and story-based entertainment.
Herbert was extremely prolific writing scores for productions like The Wizard of the Nile, The Serenade, The Singing Girl, Fortune Teller, Babes in Toyland, The Prima Donna, It Happened in Nordland, Wonderland, Mlle Modies, The Red Mill, Dream City and the Magic Knght, Little Nemo, Naughty Marietta, The Enchantress, The Velvet Lad and The Dream Girl. He also contributed songs to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 and 1923 and composer the first original background film score for The Fall of a Nation.
As one of the 9 founders of ASCAP, Herbert served as a director and vice president from 1914-1924. Herbert was working on a number for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924, when he collapsed, and died of coronary arrest, while visiting his doctor. He was 65 years old.
It is difficult to comprehend the American popular song without the music and vision of Victor Herbert. Today, Herbert is revered as one of the giants of the American Musical Theater and trubadour for songwriters. In 1917, his suit against Shanley’s Restaurant resulted in the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the right of a copyright owner to receive royalties from public performances. This decision was a definitive moment in American culture as a whole and one that affects all aspects of creative and intellectual property.
Victor Herbert died from coronary arrest in New York City on May 26, 1924.