Superstar is a powerful word but also one we Americans toss around rather lightly and all too frequently today. Charismatic figures abound in athletics, entertainment and politics; yet few if any of today's superstars can match the breadth and depth of Victor Herbert's achievements. Since time is always of the essence on the net, let's cut to the chase quickly before we look with any detail at the life of Victor Herbert.
Looking at a resume of this artist, one would find: America's finest cello virtuoso from the 1880s well into 1910s; composer of hundreds of popular songs and marches, composer of 3 major classical works for cello and orchestra, including a Cello Concerto almost as famous as Dvorak's Cello Concerto; numerous major symphonic works including a Suite for Orchestra included on the same program with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; 54 produced operettas, 3 operas (including the 2nd American opera), numerous movie scores (including the first fully original American film score, Fall of A Nation); founder and member of the New York String Quartet; member of the New York Philharmonic Society for 11 consecutive seasons; director of the 22nd Regiment Band of the New York National Guard (Gilmore's Band); conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (taking them to their first Carnegie Hall appearances); founder and conductor of the Victor Herbert Orchestra; one of the first musical artists to be recorded; extraordinarily talented orchestrator and arranger of both his own work and that of others; one of nine founders of ASCAP; major proponent and testifier for the 1908 Copyright Law; winner of a law suit against a critic; major contributor to the Ziegfeld Follies every year from 1917 to 1924; member of the Lambs Club; member of the Friars; and member of numerous American Irish organizations. Victor Herbert was a household name from the 1890s until well into the 1930s and 40s. It's time to reacquaint ourselves with this marvelous American musical giant.
Born on February 1, 1859 in Dublin, Ireland, Herbert came by his musical ilk naturally through his maternal grandfather, Samuel Lover, poet, painter, novelist, and composer. The two men were cut of the same cloth. Each shared an eminence pride of country, keen intelligence, love of peers, pure talents, and tremendous versatility. Each man became an expatriate, had uncommon wit, imagination and eloquence attracting loyalty and admiration from almost every person they touched. Both believed wholeheartedly in their creations and were quick to take offence at any injustice. In short, the two men could have been twins. The major difference was the size of their venues and the times in which they lived. Samuel Lover existed in Ireland from 1796 to 1868 while Victor reigned in America for the majority of his life which spanned from 1859 to 1924. The times were vastly different and so, therefore, was the impact of the grandchild upon his times.
Herbert's sojourn in Ireland was actually quite short because of the early death of his father, Edward Herbert, when Victor was no more than two or three years old. This unfortunate circumstance led to a direct exposure of the grandchild to all that comprised the grandfather as Victor and his mother spent the next three years at Lover's estate in the Irish countryside. Victor's favorite memories of this period were of watching his grandfather paint for hours and the constant exposure of music to his daily life. Lover's was the sort of intellect which attracted a constant stream of writers and musicians to his home creating a salon effect which planted the first seeds of what would become Victor Herbert's career of choice.
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. While Herbert's stepfather was connected to the German royal family through blood, his financial connections were negligible. 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, quite possibly simply to make some quick money. The teenager studied piano, flute and piccolo before turning finally and brilliantly to the cello. Interestingly, it was the flute and piccolo which landed him his first orchestra position. It was also a major embarrassing fluff of a piccolo solo during a concert which helped push Herbert toward the cello and his first major achievement in music. To put it succinctly, Victor Herbert became a virtuoso cellist without peer, soloing by age 19 with major orchestras in Germany.
By 1880 at the age of 21, Herbert had spent several years as a member of Baron Paul von Derwies' (Russian) private orchestra in Lugano as well a year with the Eduard Strauss Orchestra in Vienna and was well on his way to a renown which won him a position in the Royal Court Orchestra of Stuttgart. He remained with this orchestra for five years during which he flourished as a soloist although never achieving the principal chair. He decided to continue his formal education by enrolling in the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music in serious pursuit of theory, harmony and composition. It was here that he came under the tutelage of Max Seifriz (1827-1885), one of the major composing teachers of the 1800s. 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 the 72 year old Franz Liszt. Musicians and honored guests assembled at an estate near Zurich for a special weekend of activities among which was a piano concert by Liszt himself which included Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" for four hands which the great piano master played himself with the composer, Saint Saens. Brahms, Liszt, Saint Saens -- a thrilling first hand influence on the young Herbert and a day that he numbered as one of his grandest memories throughout his entire life.
In 1883, at the age of 24, Victor Herbert served as both soloist and composer of his own earliest know work, Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op.3. With this composition, he established himself as a finished composer of skill and substance as well as an extraordinary instrumental artist. His career was well underway.
In 1885, the Royal Court Orchestra added a soprano, Therese Forster to it's roster of soloists and thus introduced Victor Herbert to his future life long companion. True to his romantic leanings, Herbert fell in love at first sight although the lady in question did not return his attentions without some major pursuit on the young man's part. Eventually, Therese agreed to listen, softened to the idea and the couple became engaged. The young soprano landed a position with the Stuttgart Opera, quickly becoming a major presence with the company and attracting the notice of Frank and Walter Damrosch of the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York City as they toured Europe looking for new talents to add to their four year old company. The gentlemen determined to hire Therese Forster and when they found they could also add the youngest cello virtuoso of Germany in the same package, the deal was sealed. Victor and Therese married on August 14, 1886 and sailed for American on October 24 of the same year. The American music landscape would never be the same.