[John Philip Sousa (right) and Victor Herbert, full-length portrait, standing on steps, facing front], [between 1920 and 1924]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Victor Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1859. His father died when Victor was an infant. His mother married a German physician, and the family moved to Stuttgart when Herbert was seven years old. In Stuttgart, he studied cello and entered the Stuttgart Conservatory in 1877 to study with Max Seifritz. He played in various orchestras, including the Viennese orchestra of Eduard Strauss, successor to his brother Johann. This early experience playing the light classical repertoire of the Strauss orchestra influenced his later interest in composing operettas. In 1881, while playing in the court orchestra in Stuttgart, he met his future wife, soprano Therese Foerster. In 1886, the newlyweds moved to America, where Therese sang the role of Aida in the American premiere of Verdi's opera at the Metropolitan Opera. Victor served as principal cellist in the Met's orchestra. He also played in the New York String Quartet, served as conductor of summer concerts and festivals, and joined the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music in 1889.
Herbert composed several works that gained recognition in serious-music circles. He began to find his unique niche, however, with the premiere of his first operetta, Prince Ananias (1894). He was enjoying great success in that genre when he accepted the post of conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1898. Subsequently, he built the orchestra's reputation to rank alongside that of the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. After a disagreement with the Pittsburgh Orchestra's management in 1904, he resigned and formed the Victor Herbert orchestra. With that group he specialized in performing programs of light orchestral music. His rise to fame accelerated with the success of his operettas Babes in Toyland (1903), Naughty Marietta (1910), and Sweethearts (1913). Herbert composed one of his most enduring songs, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," for Naughty Marietta. Though he composed two operas, Natoma (1911) and Madeleine (1914), his legacy remains his lighter works, concluding with the operetta Eileen (1917), based on a libretto dealing with the Irish rebellion of 1798.
Herbert championed composers' rights and was instrumental in advocating for the passage of the American copyright law of 1909. He co-founded, along with John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1914. He served that landmark organization as a vice-president and director until his death in 1924. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and letters in 1908. In 1917, he won a suit in a case brought before the Supreme Court in which composers gained the right to receive fees for the performances of their works.