The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Loras John Schissel, Curator of the Victor Herbert exhibit currently on display in the Performing Arts Reading Room and now available as an online exhibit.
Regarded as the most famous American composer of his era, Victor Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland on February 1, 1859. His mother, Fanny Lover, was the daughter of the celebrated Irish novelist, composer, and poet Samuel Lover (1797-1868). The Herbert family moved to Stuttgart Germany in 1866 and young Victor began the study of musical composition and rapidly advanced as a virtuoso cellist. Upon his graduation from the Stuttgart Conservatory, Herbert traveled widely as a cellist and began to have his instrumental and vocal works published. In 1886, Herbert married Theresa Foerster who was soon to be engaged as a star soprano at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Upon their arrival in New York, Herbert became first cellist in the Met Orchestra and quickly became active in the New York musical life of the time, performing, conducting and becoming well known as a composer of concert music. Herbert’s most famous serious work, his Second Cello Concerto op. 30 inspired his friend Antonin Dvořák to compose his own masterwork in the same medium.
Herbert was also drawn to the musical stage and from 1894, with his operetta, “Prince Ananias,” through his final stage work, “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924,” he dominated the New York and American stage. His most popular stage work, “Babes In Toyland,” is still regularly produced and is remembered by many in its 1934 film version starring the comedic team Laurel and Hardy. No present day Christmas would be complete without hearing “The March of the Toys,” or the sublime “Toyland” on the radio or in the mall.
A man of enormous energy, Herbert also found time to be the Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, organize his own widely popular touring ensemble, “The Victor Herbert Orchestra,” champion Irish causes both here in the U.S. and in Ireland, conduct and tour with his own 22nd Regiment Band, record extensively for Edison and Victor Recording Companies, and even create the “American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). An incredible body of work in one lifetime!
The musical works and life of Victor Herbert have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years—new productions of the musicals, recordings of his concert works, a new biography—are but a few examples of this reassessment and reevaluation. Scholars are now quick to place Herbert as the grandfather of the American musical theater, and are taking a fresh look at his concert music and his important role in American culture.
The Musical Worlds of Victor Herbert, examines and samples the many-sided lives of this great man. Materials have been selected from the Library’s enormous Victor Herbert Archive, established by his daughter Ella Herbert Bartlett under the supervision and guidance of Music Division Assistant Chief and Herbert biographer Edward M. Waters. Photographs, original manuscripts, sheet music, programs, and even Herbert’s composition desk and death mask are but a small fraction of materials from the archive on display here.
As Neil Gould puts forth in the preface of his recently published biography: “Herbert was more than a great stage composer. He was an ideal subject for a biographer —by turns litigious, bellicose, short-tempered, loving, faithful, collegial, patriotic, indulgent, generous, frustrated — in short, a great character.”
It is hoped that this exhibit, drawing from the unparalleled collections of the Library of Congress will inspire others to take a look—or better still—a listen to the magical musical worlds of the great Victor Herbert.