Victor Herbert was born on February 1, 1859, in Dublin, Ireland. He studied music in Germany, where he became a cellist and composer for the court in Stuttgart and joined the faculty of the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music. In 1886, he and his wife, opera singer Therese Foerster, immigrated to New York where they worked for the Metropolitan Opera and became active in the musical life of the city.
Little girl and boy land
While you dwell within it
You are ever happy then.
Childhood’s Joy land,
Mystic, merry Toyland,
Once you pass its borders
You can never return again.
Babes in Toyland
Book and lyrics by Glen MacDonough,
Music by Victor Herbert, 1903.
Herbert, a composer of symphonic music and chamber string pieces, joined the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music. In 1893, he became bandmaster of the 22nd Regiment Band of New York after the death of the celebrated Patrick S. Gilmore, “Father of the American Band.” Herbert wrote a number of marches while he was the band’s conductor.
From 1898 to 1904 he directed the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and then formed the Victor Herbert Orchestra which performed lighter music. Herbert was most famous as a composer of light operetta. Between 1894 and 1924 he composed more than forty comic operettas which had lengthy runs on Broadway and on tour around the country. His best known remains Babes in Toyland, which opened in 1903, a fantasy inspired by Frank L. Baum’s popular The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Other popular operettas composed by Herbert included The Serenade, The Fortune Teller, Mlle. Modiste, The Red Mill, and Naughty Marietta. All were characterized by frothy romantic plots with happy endings.
The music from Herbert’s theatrical pieces became standard recital repertory pieces and his instrumental waltzes were popular dance music. Later in his life Herbert wrote for musical revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies.
Through his friendship with Thomas Edison, Herbert was one of the first to record his music on the newly invented phonograph. He made and issued early recordings of some of his works in orchestral versions, including “Petite Valse,” “American Fantasie,” and “Indian Summer.”
Herbert wrote a full symphonic score for the film The Fall of a Nation, which premiered in New York on June 6, 1916. This was to have been the first complete original score written to accompany an American film (earlier film scores tended to combine new music with older pieces) but Victor L. Schertzinger’s original score for the Thomas Ince film Civilization premiered in Los Angeles on April 17. For many years only disparate segments of Herbert’s score, arranged in no particular order, were available. When a piano score was discovered in the Victor Herbert Collection of the Library’s Music Division it became possible to establish the order of the segments. As a result, a condensed version of the film’s full symphonic score was restored and performed in 1984.
- Read about Victor Herbert’s role in the fight for performance rights and royalties in the Today in History feature of February 13 on the founding of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).
- Listen to early recordings of Victor Herbert songs. Search on the term Victor Herbert in Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry to hear, for example, “The Serenade” from October 9, 1897.
- Search these sheet music collections on Victor Herbert for more examples of Herbert’s compositions:
- Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920
- Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885
- African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920: Selected from the Collections of Brown University
- Read the essay “The American Brass Band Movement: A Historical Overview,” which includes a quote from Victor Herbert in the section entitled “German, Irish, and Italian Influences.” This material is from Band Music from the Civil War Era, which makes available examples of the brass band music that flourished in the U.S. from the 1850s through the late nineteenth century.
- Browse the typescript of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 in the collection The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 to find an example of Herbert’s contribution to this extravaganza. (Hint: view image 50.)
- Search the Performing Arts Encyclopedia on Victor Herbert for sheet music and other information.