America's King of the Operetta
As a part of our continuing series of Tin Pan Alley pioneer biographies, this month (November, 2004) we present a look at the life and music of Victor Herbert. Victor Herbert was an American by adoption. Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland on February 1, 1859 and later (1886) came to America and stayed with us. Herbert made his greatest contribution to America's music as a composer and writer of Operettas, many of which remain in the popular repertoire to this day. From the many songs he wrote for his operettas came many individual song hits that resonated with the American public and peoples around the world.
Herbert came into this world with a well established pedigree in the arts. His grandfather was Samuel Lover (1797 - 1868), a well known novelist, playwright and composer of characteristic Irish songs. On the death of his father in 1866, his mother moved the family to Germany where he began formal music study at age seven. He became a pupil at the famed Stuttgart Conservatory and became a very accomplished cellist. He became first cellist in the court orchestra of Stuttgart and during this period, he performed and published his first compositions. In 1883 he wrote a suite for cello and orchestra and in
It was at this time that Herbert wended his way into the American music publishing industry and began to compose seriously. He managed to sell a few martial works for publication while associated with the Gilmore band. The earliest work we've acquired for Herbert was written during this period, in 1895 and is a march, written for the regiment band but transcribed here for piano. The work bears his copyright and Salute To Atlanta carries a dedication to Henry W. Grady (1850 - 1889), editor of The Atlanta Constitution and a proponent of a "New South" in the post-Civil War era. Grady's name is still alive in Atlanta where a high school built in 1947 bears his name. The photo on the cover is of Grady. If you are interested in knowing more about Grady, see the Georgia Encyclopedia entry for him. Exactly why Herbert chose Grady as the dedicatee is unknown. The publisher however was an Atlanta company and it is possible the work was commissioned to memorialize Grady.
As for the music, when creating the Sibelius Scorch notation, I actually though when I first started that this had to be the worst march ever published and was thinking that might be why not too many marches by Herbert are found. However, on completion and after creating the MIDI file, it grew on me and on hearing it in it's entirety, I found it very enjoyable. I do hear in it echoes of his classical and later operetta styles. Certain passages get a little "classical" and out of character for a march. He uses some unusual harmony as well. Overall though it is a melodic and very musical piece. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi (There are no lyrics for this work).
Not long after his stint with Gilmore's band Herbert went to Pittsburgh in 1898 to lead the Pittsburgh Orchestra. At the time the orchestra was in a state of disarray and Herbert worked hard to build the orchestra to become one of America's first three orchestras of stature. During this period and before, Herbert had begun taking a stab at writing operettas and his first was written in 1893. La Vivandière, written especially for Vivian Russell was never staged and unfortunately, the score and book have been lost so we may never know what his first effort sounded or looked like. His first staged production was in 1894; Prince Ananias. The work had been commissioned and was introduced by the Boston light opera company. As with many early works of composers, Herbert was still finding his way and Prince Ananias was a flop. However, in 1895, he had a hit on his hands with The Wizard of the Nile. A number of hits followed and Herbert had established himself firmly as one of the finest composers of light opera in America. A 1910 book however stated
"His operas and musical comedies, while possibly not as high and order as those of De Koven, are extremely tuneful and pleasing and always show the touch of a musician." (The American History and Encyclopedia of Music, Hubbard, W.L., 1910, Irving Squire, NY)
After the "Wizard" Herbert wrote The Serenade which premiered in New York on March 16, 1897. Most of these works are not often seen today however many of his later works have enjoyed continuing performances around the country and even abroad, particularly in England.
The same year that he joined the Pittsburgh orchestra, Herbert wrote and staged one of his most popularoperettas, The Fortune Teller that included one of his best known songs; Gypsy Love Song (Slumber On My Little Gypsy Sweetheart) in collaboration with Harry B. Smith. Herbert wrote this opera specifically for the talents of Alice Nielsen who had established herself in The Serenade. First staged in New York. The story of this operetta is set in Hungary, with Nielsen cast as Irma, a ballet student in love with a Hussar captain. The Hungarian setting inspired Herbert to write the music with a strong Hungarian sound. Gypsy Love Song was the biggest hit to come out of the show and was and continues to be one of Herbert's best loved melodies.
Musically, the song is really a work of art more so than a "popular" song. In fact, most of Herbert's songs lie more in the realm of "classical" music or art songs and don't fit at all with the mainstream popular works of the time. Of course that comes from their primary origin, operetta which is a more formal and classical style. This song starts with a slow introductory passage that has the Hungarian flavor that conveys a mysterious tone appropriate to the lyrics. The verse continues with that same tone of mystery, sadness and loneliness but then completely changes its nature with the chorus. We change key to the brighter C major and the song picks up the pace and has a much happier and upbeat tone. I know you'll enjoy this one. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .
By 1900, Herbert had become well established as one of America's premiere stage composer. In 1899 he staged three operettas; Cyrano de Bergerac, The Singing Girl and The Ameer. Author and film producer Rupert Hughes said of Herbert as the new century turned;
"The music of Victor Herbert dignifies the American stage. It reaches the highest level of European comic opera. Then too it is learnedly humorous."
The first decade of the twentieth century was Herbert's greatest period. During those first years of the new century, Herbert produced some of his greatest operettas and correspondingly as a result, man, many individual song hits from those shows. Among his most successful operettas of the period was Babes in Toy Land. The show opened at the Majestic Theater, on Oct 13, 1903 and closed Mar 19, 1904 after 192 performances. It also enjoyed several revival performances on Broadway in the years up till 1930 and remains in the repertoire of many opera companies to this day. Of course, the most famous song from this show was Toy Land (Scorch version, MIDI here), which we featured a few years ago in an issue about lasting favorites. Babes in Toy Land by the way appeared on TV in a lavish production broadcast in the winter of 1960.
Perhaps this operetta was one which was most revealing of Herbert's sense of humor mentioned by Hughes. Though we remember Toy Land as a very sweet and melodic tune, many of the songs in Babes in Toy Land are extremely fanciful and humorous. One such song, and my favorite humorous song from the show is I Can't Do The Sum. For those of us who remember those cursed word problems from our school days (thanks to Ray's Practical Arithmetic) this song is a fitting revenge for such problems. Musically, the song is the most whimsical I've heard from Herbert and though I generally think much of Herbert's work is ostentatious and sometimes far too serious in tone, this song proves that he had a side that was much lighter. The song takes place in a schoolroom and the children sing some word problems that are insolvable, be sure to see the Scorch version or in the least, the lyrics (links below). One little clever device Herbert wrote into this song was the use of a slight amount of percussive effects to simulate the sound of "chalk on a slate." Check it out in the Scorch version. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (Get the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi there are no Lyrics for this work.
By 1910, Herbert had produced several other notable operettas. It Happened in Nordland premired at the Lew M. Fields Theater in New York on December 5th 1904 and ran for 154 performances a return engagement was produced the following year and ran for another 100 performances. Mlle. Modeste opened on Christmas day starring Fritzi Scheff of the Metropolitan Opera. That show produced another of Herbert's lasting hits, Kiss Me Again (Scorch version, listen to the MIDI here). The Red Mill opened on September 24, 1906 at the Knickerbocker Theater and ran for an impressive 274 performances. The Red Mill enjoyed a revival at the
Ziegfeld theater and ran for an incredible 531 performances closing in January of 1947. Herbert's final production of this successful decade was Naughty Marietta, probably his best and maybe the best operetta produced
during that entire decade.
Naughty Marietta first opened at the New York Theater on November 7, 1910. The show was produced by none other than Oscar Hammerstein and had an all star cast that included; Louise Aichel, Raymond J. Bloomer, Harry Cooper, Vera De Rosa, Maria Duchene, Kate Elinore, William Frederick, Philip Hahn and Bert Leslie. Described by David Ewen as "perhaps his most opulent" operetta. The show produced some incredible songs that show Herbert at his melodic best. Many of the songs were also very creative and used musical styles and techniques that only a master musician would likely be able to create. The first run of the show closed March 4, 1911 after only 136 performances. After Herbert's death several other more successful runs appeared in 1929 and 1931. The operetta has become a staple in the opera-operetta genre and is regularly performed to this day.
Among the many songs that came out of this operetta was one of his grandest and most memorable, Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life. We featured this song years ago before we had the Scorch capability and this issue presents it in a newer and better form. Though this song has enjoyed a great deal of popularity, it has failed to ever capture my admiration. The song has appeared in at least two movies, Naughty Marietta (1935) starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald and The Great Victor
Herbert (1939) starring and sung by Allan Jones. I think my own opinion and taste is based on what I believe to be a somewhat ponderous and very dated sound. It almost comes across to me as a parody of an operatic song and makes me laugh. That said, I do have to admire the musicianship and creativity that went into the song. The unusual meter and use of rests makes the song very difficult to play and sing smoothly. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
In 1911, Herbert produced a melodic operetta titled When Sweet Sixteen. The show opened at New York's Daly's theater on September 14th and closed only 11 days later on the 25th after a pathetic 12 performances. Among the songs written for the show was this one published the year before in anticipation of the show's opening; The Wild Rose. By this time Herbert was a phenomenon and any music from him was no doubt considered a hit before it even appeared in a show. The song tells a rather sad tale of a country rose transplanted to the city and mocked by all of the pedigreed flowers. The flower eventually withers and dies and only then does it return to its open fields. Melodically it is a friendly tune but a bit dated in some of its harmony in the chorus. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
It is said by most biographers that Herbert's musical artistry began to steadily decline after his triumph with Naughty Marietta. He continued to be productive however right up to the end of his life. Though from this point on, his operetta's never reached the levels of popularity that his earlier ones had, Herbert still managed to write some very good songs for the rest of his career. One such song was Love Is a Story That's Old, written for the comic opera, The Madcap Duchess. This show opened on November 11, 1913 at the Globe Theater and closed after only 71 performances just a few weeks later. Prior to this work, Herbert had a mildly successful staging of Sweethearts in September.
The song begins with a light introduction and verse, it is the chorus where Herbert's melodic skills come to the fore. I personally find the chorus to be magnificent. Even if his shows were falling from disfavor, some of his songs like this one bring great delight. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
Herbert was a crusader for the rights of songwriters and composers and responsible for creating an organization of America's leading composers in 1917 that later became ASCAP. The group was formed after the resolution of a lawsuit instituted by Herbert in 1913. While dining at a New York restaurant, Shanley's Herbert noticed the orchestra playing a number of his works. At the time it is said that it was unfair for the restaurant to use the music of a living composer without some compensation to the composer. The legal battle went on for four years till the court ruled in favor of Herbert. In 1914, Herbert was still plugging along writing and producing operettas and musical stage revues. That year, he introduced The Only Girl to Broadway at the 39th Street Theater. The show opened on November 2, 1914 and played to full houses for over 200 performances. It seemed that Herbert had recaptured his old magic at least for the moment. One of the freshest and enjoyable songs to come from this show was When You're Away.
The song is a minor key waltz that begins with the singer lamenting the fact that he is apart from his life's love. The verse is a little too sad sounding perhaps but the chorus brings a key change and a beautiful and expressive waltz that is dreamy and very melodic. Through ample use of arpeggiated chords and rubato, the melody just oozes with love and desire. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
I certainly do not want to imply that all Herbert was doing during this time was the composition of operettas. In fact, he continued to compose a large number of individual pieces for the likes of the Ziegfeld Follies (link to our January, 2004 article about Ziegfeld and his follies) and also a number of major orchestral works. Among his more serious works were a second concerto for violoncello, a number of suites for orchestra, a symphonic poem, and at least one film score for the movie, The Fall Of A Nation (1917). As well, he made two major excursions into the world of large scale opera, neither of which were terribly well received. His first was a Wagnerian influenced work titled Natoma. The opera was produced in Philadelphia in February of 1911 and starred one of America's best loved singers, John McCormack. The production company kept the opera in its repertory for three seasons. His second major opera was Madeline. With a great deal of Straussian influence, the New York Metropolitan Opera Company first performed it in January of 1914.
In 1916, Herbert produced the musical play, The Cinderella Man featuring this song; Out of His Heart (He Builds A Home). The Cinderella Man opened on January 17, 1916 at the Hudson Theater. Interestingly, the Internet Broadway Database, which I've found to be exceptionally reliable, lists The Cinderella Man as a play written by Edward Childs Carpenter and makes no mention of Herbert having contributed music to the play. The show ran for 192 performances. The New Grove lists all (45) of Herbert's Operettas and stage works and there is no mention of this play being among his works. I deduce from all this that it is likely that this is one of those "one-off" works that Herbert produced, probably at the request of Carpenter to promote the show.
Despite the provenance of the work or it's origins, it is yet another example of a romantic and melodic ballad by Herbert. With a lot of heartfelt emotion the song is a beautiful tribute to the common man. I think it is absolutely touching and regardless of some biographers' belief that his artistic decline was well underway by now, this song absolutely belies that argument. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
In 1919 Herbert was near the end of his life but he still was very productive. This year, he staged the musical play (The New Grove categorizes it as an operetta), Angel Face. The play opened on December 29, 1919 at the Knickerbocker and ran for only 71 performances. Perhaps the decline in the success of his works was not as much a result of any decline in his capacity to create but more a result of his failure to adapt to changing tastes in music and entertainment. By 1919 and beyond, the American stage was no longer dominated by operettas and had moved on to more exciting musical reviews with flash, bang and not just a little flesh. By now, the steady and staid operetta was no doubt seen as dated and quite out of fashion. From what I've seen, Herbert's music actually improved in his later years in my opinion. His songs were much more approachable and lyrical than ever before.
Included in Angel Face was I Might Be Your Once-In-A-While. The music is light and not as dense as some of the other songs we've seen from Herbert thus far. In addition, it has more of the flavor of a popular song with a bit of a Fox-trot sound to it. The harmony, though lighter, is very pleasant and the somewhat ostinato bass line in the chorus adds a nice bounce to the music. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
The following year, 1920, brought yet another operetta, The Girl In The Spotlight. Again, the Knickerbocker Theater was the venue on opening day, July 12, 1920. As yet a further indication that light opera had run its course, this show closed only a few weeks later on August 28 after only 56 performances. Time was running out for the operetta and at the same time, Herbert found himself composing more and more individual pieces for the more popular revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies. Out of this inauspicious play came a very nice song, There's A Tender Look In Your Eyes.
Again, we have a wonderful waltz song that is full of pleasing harmony and melody. At this stage, Herbert seems to have settled on a less dense classical style that is much more reflective of popular tastes. In fact, the simplicity of this song in my opinion is part of what makes it so attractive. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
By 1922, Herbert had finished his career of operetta composing and was almost exclusively on separate musical works for either Ziegfeld or other shows. According to The New Grove, Herbert's last operetta was Orange Blossoms, produced in 1922. However Kinkle, states (correctly) that his last was Dream Girl which opened in August 1924, some three months after his death. When Knighthood Was In Flower seems to have been written initially as a song that was intended for the film of the same name that was issued in 1922 starring Marion Davies and Forrest Stanley who are pictured on the cover in a still from the movie. The song later appeared in The Passing Show of 1924, a show produced by Sigmund Romberg.
This song too is another waltz song that is melodic and tells a story of a princess seeking the love of a Knight despite fatherly disapproval. It's a sweet song. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.
Herbert would only live two more years, still composing to the end. He was working on some music for the Ziegfeld follies on May 26, 1924 when he suddenly collapsed and dies of a heart attack. America had lost an adopted son, one of the worlds most respected composers and who at least one contemporary author called, "the king of America's music." After his death sculptor Edward T. Quinn produced a magnificent bronze bust of Herbert which was placed on a stone pedestal in New York's Central Park Mall. Herbert was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and lies in a grand mausoleum there. His life story was memorialized in the 1939 movie, The Great Victor Herbert and the United States
Postal Service issued a stamp in 1940 with his image honoring him. The musical
legacy of Victor goes beyond that of many composers. His contribution to the
development of the American comic opera or operetta can be considered his greatest
accomplishment. The establishment of ASCAP and the effect he had on ensuring
that laws were in place is undeniably his greatest legacy. Some of his music
still lives on in opera company performances around the world but much of his
music has been relegated to musty attics or garages slowly deteriorating. We've
rescued some of his music and revived it for your pleasure, we hope you've enjoyed
For biographical information about some of the collaborators and lyricists who assistedVictor Herbert with the songs we've featured this month, see our composers biographies page.
Want to see and hear more Victor Herbert songs? Explore our site's resources. Over the years we've published a few other Herbert songs. Here is a list of songs in addition to the songs featured in this article that have been published on our site and the monthly issue of ParlorSongs where they can be seen and heard.