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Victor Herbert: From Babes in Toyland to Suite of Serenades

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The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Ray White.

Portrait of Victor Herbert. Harris & Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Victor Herbert’s 152nd birthday is this month.  If you recognize his name, you might recall that he composed operettas.  Perhaps Babes in Toyland comes to mind.  Its best-known number, “Toyland, Toyland, little girl and boy land…,” recorded by Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, the Supremes, and a host of others, is still included on occasional Christmas albums.   From other operettas come “Italian Street Song” and “Art Is Calling for Me,” sometimes programmed by operatic sopranos as “lighter” showpieces.

Herbert’s spheres of activity, however, were far broader than his reputation as New York operetta composer might suggest.  He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 1, 1859.  His father died when he was 3 years old; his mother remarried, and the family moved to Stuttgart, Germany.  It was as a cellist and a composer of orchestral music that the young Herbert first made his professional mark.  His earliest significant compositions were large-scale and serious, and included 2 concertos for cello and orchestra.

In 1886 he moved to New York, newly-married to noted Viennese soprano Therese Förster.  She had been engaged to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, beginning with opening night of the season that fall.  As part of the deal, her husband was given a job playing in the orchestra.

Cellist Herbert quickly became involved in New York’s music scene, appearing as orchestra member, soloist, and chamber musician.  He later added conducting to his resume, leading the 22nd Regiment Band of the New York National Guard and then the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Victor Herbert Orchestra.  He also joined the faculty of New York’s National Conservatory of Music.

Victor Herbert. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At age 35, in 1894, he wrote his first operetta, Prince Ananias.  Forty-two more would follow over the next 30 years, including such picturesque titles as The Wizard of the Nile, The Rose of Algeria, Eileen (The Hearts of Erin), The Enchantress, The Fortune Teller, and Naughty Marietta. The famous Babes in Toyland debuted in 1903.  Herbert did not limit his subsequent work solely to operettas, however.  In 1916 he wrote the score for the silent film The Fall of a Nation, possibly the earliest through-composed score to accompany a feature film.  His last orchestral work, Suite of Serenades, received its premiere on February 12, 1924, on the same program with the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.

He took a keen interest in issues relating to copyright and the compensation of composers.  He testified before Congress during hearings on the revision of the copyright statutes.  In 1914 he became a founder of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (“ASCAP”), and he served as vice president for the remainder of his life.  He died in New York of cardiac arrest on May 26, 1924.

The Library of Congress holds the preeminent collection of music manuscripts of works by Victor Herbert, in addition to a small quantity of correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, and programs.  An online finding aid to the Herbert Collection is now in preparation.  In the meanwhile, we invite your inquiries about the compositions of this very remarkable musician.

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