American Career Begins
From October 24, 1886 until his death on May 26, 1924, Victor Herbert would affect American music in more ways than any other artist has ever accomplished. Starting with his position in the pit orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera Company, he quickly established himself as a much sought-after soloist and small ensemble participant as well as a natural leader and formulator of new groups.
Herbert arrived in America because his brand new wife, Therese Herbert-Forster, was hired by Anton Seidl, music conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera Company to sing four starring Soprano roles during the Metropolitan's fourth season of German operas. As part of her employment agreement, her new husband was hired to play cello in the pit orchestra. The young couple and Maestro Seidel traveled on the same ship to America that October in 1886 along with several other singers joining the Met company. Bad weather bonded all the passengers firmly together but even more importantly Victor Herbert was introduced to a major friend and mentor -- Maestro Seidl.
Herbert's First Mentor
Anton Seidl was in his second year at the Metropolitan Opera (only four seasons old) and had already established himself as one of the most important musical figures in New York City. I mention him here because he was clearly Herbert's most important new American mentor. Anton Seidl probably had a profound effect on Herbert's conducting skills and particularly his skills in relating to his musical colleagues whether playing with them or conducting them. Every thing that was ever said about Herbert the conductor was first said about Anton Seidl. He was loved and respected by his orchestra members and held major orchestral position very early in his career. At the time of his unexpected death at the age of 47, he was Conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society, all Metropolitan Opera House German productions, a regular conductor at the German Bayreuth Festivals and a regular conductor at Covent Gardens in London. Victor Herbert gave the eulogy at Seidl's funeral.
Therese's Operatic Career Mystery
One of the few mysteries of Herbert's life involves Therese Herbert-Forster's extremely brilliant but brief operatic career in America. From the moment she set foot on the Metropolitan's stage on November 12, 1886, the glamorous blond won rave revues. She opened the 4th season in the title role of Goldmark's Die Knigin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba) and followed that with Elsa in Lohengren, Irene in Wagner's Rienzi and finished the season with Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. Ms. Herbert-Forster even made the cover of the Musical Courier, one of major magazines devoted to the New York musical world. "The Metropolitan has found a new attractive diva and her career should have set for years to come." NOTE: Keep the name Musical Courier in mind as the magazine will play a major role in Herbert's life and career for several decades.
Despite this universal acclaim, something major happened to Mrs. Herbert-Forster's Metropolitan relationship. In the next season, 1887-1888, she sang only once as Elsa in Lohengren on February 14, 1888 and then she was gone from the roster. She did sing with the completely German Thalia Theatre where she was paired with German singer Heinrich Btel to stunning reviews. No explanation of this sudden relocation of Therese's career seems to be found in Water's biography of Herbert which details everything else in Herbert's life. The soprano did sing in several other relative minor venues for several more years but certainly nothing that would indicate any sort of major career positioning. Was it a falling out with the Metropolitan hierarchy? Was it a clash of egos with her new husband who was also building a career? We'll never know but it remains a most intriguing mystery.
Life Begins in America
Victor and Therese settled into their first apartment at 18th Street and 4th Avenue, four short blocks from the heart of the New York music and theatre world, 14th Street. Following the European custom, they joined the large German musician community in the cafe life of Luchow's, Lienau, Billy Mould's and Werle's. Musicians thronged to New York cafes not so much for drinking as for musical discourse, professional contacts and artistic relationships. There the Herberts met James Gibbon Huneker who would become not only a great friend but a major New York critic. J. G. Huneker was quoted by Waters as saying, ". . .the cafe is the poor man's club, the best stamping ground for men of talent. Ideas circulate. Brain tilts with brain." It was on these many evenings that Herbert began handing out his first business card on which he proclaimed himself, "solo cellist from the Royal Orchestra of his Majesty, the King of Wurtemberg. Instructor in cello, vocal music and harmony." This -- despite making $40 to $50 a week as an obscure cellist in the Met pit.
The Working Performer
The wait for notice lasted roughly 4 months. Another major mentor, Walter Damrosch, conductor of The Symphony Society invited the young cellist to join his orchestra as soloist for a concert on Saturday, January 8, 1887 to perform Herbert's own composition, Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 3. This concert took place in the Metropolitan Opera House, which was often used as a concert hall when not in production. The New York Herald critic said "[Herbert's] style is infinitely more easy and graceful then that of most cello players . . . tone more liquid, more melodious, more noble quality..." Thus began one of the most famous solo cello careers in American musical history. It is remarkable that Herbert's first three solo appearances in New York City were playing his own compositions (Op 3, "Berceuse" and "Polonais").
Second Season ('87-'88)
Herbert's second season in the United States was marked by the formation of his first orchestra, the "Majestic Orchestra Internationale." While it only lasted one season, it was 40 musicians strong, giving concerts in both the famous Koster and Bial's concert hall on 23rd Street, NYC and Boston's Music Hall. Tickets prices were in the rarefied range of 10 to 30 cents. Herbert was both conductor and cello soloist, a practice he was to retain for many years.
The 87-88 season also saw Herbert's debut as an original member of the New York String Quartet on December 8, 1887. The other members were Sam Franko - 1st Violin and originator of the group, Henry Boewig - 2nd Violin, and Ludwig Schenck - Viola. This group performed all their concerts at Steinway Hall on 14th Street. Admittance was free and the reviews were grand.
The Working Conductor
Again Anton Seidl gave the young Herbert a tremendous boost with an assistant conductor position during the summer of 1888 with Seidl's summer orchestra in residence at New York City's Brighton Beach. The 80 piece orchestra gave two performances a day for ten weeks beginning on June 30. Ironically during the same season, Gilmore's Band played the same sort of schedule at nearby Manhattan Beach whose lure in those days was their great chowder!
This was an enormous experiment to present classical orchestral music to a boardwalk crowd. The Manhattan musical world spent that spring placing their money on total failure. Seidl did not fail. He presented overtures, symphonic poems, symphonies, novelties and "American" works and 50,000 people came. Suddenly Brighton Beach became the "in place" for the New York musical colony.
Through the season, Victor Herbert took the baton on most of the lighter fare and discovered the power of popular music making.
Herbert's Third Season ('88-'89)
A new touring phenomenon made it's debut during the Fall of the '88-'89 season the "concert party" tour. Musicians would band together to tour inland cities and towns presenting varied programs to new audiences. Emma Juchs, an American Soprano who had rejected offers by the Metropolitan Opera Company, hired Herbert to be the conductor, soloist, vocal coach and piano accompanist for just such a "party" composed of Juchs as soprano, a mezzo, tenor, bass and pianist Adele Aus de Ohe. Once they had put together programs of concert songs, operatic scenes and arias, this "concert party" toured such mid-west towns as Duluth, Dubuque, Des Moines, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Atchison, and St. Joseph. They would perform in local halls or private homes and often close their program with a costumed 2nd act of Gounod's Faust. These musical presentations certainly never "played down" to their new audiences. Occasionally, a local orchestra would join the group, but for the most part, piano and cello were the only accompaniments. Not only would the touring group thrill local wealthy patrons who could afford to hire such an intimate evening, but they most certainly also educated the local audiences for the touring bands and orchestras that followed them.
Back from his tour, Herbert joined with Max Bendix, Violin and Reinhold L. Herman, pianist to form the Metropolitan Trio Club. This trio is notable primarily because the Musical Courier critics fell all over themselves in lavishing praise on both Herbert and the group. Specifically, the magazine was on record in stating ". . . [Herbert's] compositions show a refined taste, abundant melodic invention . . ." On another date, "As a violoncellist, Mr. Herbert ranks with the foremost alive. . ." and yet again "He is the prince of good fellows, a most genial friend and companion and one of the most popular of our metropolitan musicians." In short, the Musical Courier was a Herbert champion.
Anton Seidl again presented Herbert with a composition showcase as he scheduled the composer's Serenade for String Orchestra, Op 12 on a December 1, 1888 concert at Steinway Hall. He even allowed his young protege to conduct it himself. This major step in Herbert's burgeoning career was followed quickly on January 5, 1889 with an even larger step. Herbert and Max Bendix (violin) were soloists for the American debut of Johannes Brahm's Double Concerto, Op 102 for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. This piece has long been considered one of the most difficult masterpieces of the 19th-century. The concert was conducted by Theodore Thomas who would also bring Victor Herbert with him to Chicago for the first time. Both Herbert and Bendix vowed to not shave until they learned the work and then performed it from memory at its debut. There does not appear to be any record of the length of the gentlemen's beards at the performance.
Next Herbert would get his first introduction to the city of Pittsburgh with a huge music festival running from May 21 to 24, 1889, celebrating the inauguration of the Exposition Building. This shining cultural achievment in the steel center of America seated 4,700 and sat on the banks of the Ohio River where steamboat whistles often interrupted events. Anton Seidl brought an orchestra of 100 pieces, a chorus of 500, Herbert, Bendix, Emma Juchs, Lilli Lehmann, Giuseppe Campanari, Adele Aus der Ohe and Therese Herbert-Forster. This would be one of the very few times in which husband and wife would perform together in a major venue.
Fourth Season ('89-'90)
Herbert added an associate conducting position with the Worcester Music Festival (a well established Eastern Festival established in 1858) to his resume in September of '89. He conducted rehearsals, occasionally took over for conductor/producer Carl Zerrahn, appeared as a soloist and ofter accompanied various other soloists His teaching credentials must also have been note worthy as Mrs. Jeannette Thurber added him to the faculty of her National Conservatory of Music of America during the Fall of 1889. This institution was one of the first music conservatories established to take talented and deserving students through every type of musical training through professional expertise. Students paid no tuition and were asked only to aid others upon reaching success themselves. This organization was incorporated by Congress on March 3, 1891 allowing them to confer a Doctorate of Music degree. This was the first instance of Congress ever doing anything for music. Mrs. Thurber had grand hopes of turning the school into a musical West Point with an additional branch in Washington. D.C. but that never really materialized. However, she did manage to attract Anton Dvorak to American to serve as head of her institution for several years.
Herbert also continued as Thomas' assistant conductor during this season and during the summer of 1890, returned to Brighton Beach with Anton Seidl.
Fifth Season ('90-'91)
Herbert's fifth season found him repeating stints with the Worcester Festival, returning to Brighton Beach once again as well as becoming the full conductor of the Boston Festival Orchestra. It's original conductor had been Zerrahn, but Victor Herbert took over the second season and after the regular May Boston Festival, hired out the orchestra to any choral society who wanted to sponsor a local festival. This Orchestra became the "broadcasters" of 100+ years ago. During this 2nd Tour, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky joined the orchestra as a guest conductor in the Baltimore/Philadelphia area on May 15th and 18th but conducted only his own work.
Sixth Season ('91-'92)
On September 24, 1891, in Worcester, Herbert introduced his most ambitious work yet entitled The Captive - for solo voices, chorus and full orchestra. The libretto revolved around a knight captured by a band of warriors. He wins a reprise at the hand of a noble lady who claims his hand in marriage. Unfortunately, our hero loves another and refuses her help.
J. G. Huneker became the first critic to suggest that Herbert could and should be the one to write the first American Opera but he also warned the young composer against weak or bad librettists. Huneker even offered to write one for Herbert himself. Unfortunately, Herbert never took him up and it and endured bad or weak librettists for his entire career. It seems fairly certain that Herbert never really concerned himself with whether his librettists were good or not. He used the same ones time and time again so he must have felt they were satisfactory to him.
The other major highlight of this sixth season in American was the formation of the Schmidt-Herbert String Quartet with a first concert on December 12, 1891. This was a big benefit for Russian immigrants at Madison Square Garden's concert hall. The quartet was composed of Louis Schmidt - 1st violin, Henry Schmidt - 2nd violin, Franz Kaltenbar - viola and Herbert on the cello.
From a composing standpoint, Herbert debuted his Irish Rhapsody on April 20, 1892 at the annual Feis Ceoil agus Seanachue of the Gaelic Society. Upon hearing this piece, J.G. Huneker referred to Herbert as the "Irish Wagner." This piece became so popular across the country that it literally was played to death, falling so far from favor that it disappeared for decades.
The Early Man
What sort of man had this young talent turned into over his first six years in America? An extraordinary soloist and conductor who was always one of his "boys." Early in 1892, Herbert performed as a solo artist for good friend and colleague John Lund's local orchestra in Buffalo, New York. After performing his first solo, he simply went and sat with the other cellists and played along with them until his next solo. One observing reporter wrote, "Mr. Herbert made 2 thousand friends on the occasion of this visit, all unbeknownst to himself."
In a very short time, Victor Herbert had established himself in New York City as an able conductor, composer, soloist, ensemble player, a leader in the making and a good comrade. He was poised for the next major step - multiple career paths which would run parallel for the remainder of his life and career.