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one of the most prolific conductors and composers of the late-1880's and early-1900's
Victor Herbert was born to Edward and Fanny Herbert in Dublin, Ireland, on February 1, 1859. His father died when he was 3-1/2, after which he and his mother moved to her parents' home in London, England. Victor's grandfather was Irish novelist, playwright, poet and composer Samuel Lover, who frequently entertained musicians, writers, and artists in the home. In 1867, Victor joined his mother in Stuttgart, Germany, to where she moved with her new husband, German physician Carl Schmidt, the previous year.
In Stuttgart, Herbert received a liberal education at Eberhard-Ludwigs Gymnasium. That education included musical training, and he studied piano, flute, and piccolo before deciding to focus on the cello, which he studied under Bernhard Cossman from age 15 to age 18. He then attended the Stuttgart Conservatory, where he studied cello, music theory, and composition under Max Seifritz.
By the time Herbert graduated from the Conservatory in 1879, he had already begun playing professionally with major German orchestras, including as a member of Russian Baron Paul von Derweis. He subsequently spent a year as a soloist in Eduard Strauss's orchestra in Vienna (1880), and then five years as a member of the court orchestra in Stuttgart (beginning in 1881). In 1883, he was chosen by Johannes Brahms to play in a chamber orchestra for the celebration of the life of Franz Liszt, then 72 years old, near Zurich, Switzerland. During this time, Herbert also composed his first pieces of instrumental music -- the Suite for cello and orchestra, Op. 3 (1883) and the Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 8 (1885); he played the solos in the premieres of both works.
Herbert met soprano Therese Förster in 1885, soon after she joined the opera for which the Stuttgart court orchestra played. The two were married in Stuttgart on August 14, 1886, and moved to the United States on October 24, 1886, after both were hired by Walter Damrosch and Anton Seidl to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; he was hired as the principal cellist, she to sing principal roles. They both became naturalized citizens in 1888.
Herbert quickly became prominent in New York City's musical scene, making his first American solo appearance on the cello in a performance of his own Suite for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 3, with Walter Damrosch conducting the Symphony Society of New York at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 8, 1887. That performance led to more solo engagements that same year, including performances of his own Berceuse and Polonais, and Herbert continued to appear as a cello soloist with major American orchestras into the 1910's. In the fall of 1887, he formed his own 40-piece orchestra, the Majestic Orchestra Internationale, which he conducted and in which he served as cello soloist. Although the orchestra survived for only one season, it performed in several of New York's most important concert halls. He then founded the New York String Quartet with violinists Sam Franko and Henry Boewig and violist Ludwig Schenck, which gave its first concert on December 8, 1887, and continued to give free-admittance concerts for several years at Steinway Hall. In the summer of 1888, Herbert became assistant conductor (under Anton Sedil) of the New York Philharmonic's ten-week summer concert seasons at Brighton Beach, a post he held until 1898. On December 1, 1888, Seidl programmed Herbert's Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 12 as part of a concert at Steinway Hall, with the composer conducting.
During this same period, he also served at various times as guest conductor and solo cellist. In the fall of 1898, he was hired by soprano Emma Juchs to direct a tour of Midwestern cities and towns that had previously enjoyed little exposure to classical music. In 1889, Herbert formed the Metropolitan Trio Club with violinist Max Bendix and pianist Reinhold L. Herman. In that same year, he also joined the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music, where he taught cello and music composition for several years. In 1890, he was appointed the conductor of the Boston Festival Orchestra, serving there in seasons through 1893, in addition to all of his conducting commitments elsewhere. In 1891, Herbert premiered The Captive, a cantata for solo voices, chorus and full orchestra. His Irish Rhapsody (1892) enjoyed a brief but intense period of popularity.
In 1894, Herbert became director of the 22nd Regimental Band of the New York National Guard, with which he toured through 1900, performing both his own band compositions and works from the orchestral repertory that he transcibed for the band. In addition to all of this work, Herbert also continued to compose orchestral music, including the Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, which premiered in 1894. His first operetta, Prince Ananias, was premiered by a popular troupe known as The Bostonians in 1894, and it was so well received that he followed it with three more operettas for Broadway -- The Wizard of the Nile (1895), Ther Serenade (1897), and The Fortune Teller (1898). His next stage work did not appear until 1904, when Babes in Toyland debuted on Broadway. This enormously successful work was followed by Mlle. Modiste (1905) and The Red Mill (1906), both of which also enjoyed great success.
In 1898, Herbert became the principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, a position he held until 1904. Under his leadership, the orchestra went from a barely cohesive body of musicians to one of the premiere orchestras in the country. After a disagreement with the management of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1904, Herbert resigned and founded the Victor Herbert Orchestra, which he led for most of the rest of his life. In addition to touring, the Victor Herbert Orchestra made many records for both Edison Records (1909-1911) and the Victor Talking Machine Company (1911-1923). Herbert also made several Victor recordings as a solo cellist.
A very prolific composer, Herbert ultimately produced two operas, one cantata, 43 operettas, incidental music to 10 stage productions, 31 compositions for orchestra, nine band compositions, nine cello compositions, five violin compositions with piano or orchestra, 22 piano compositions, one flute and clarinet duet with orchestra, numerous songs, including many for the Ziegfeld Follies, and other works, 12 choral compositions, and numerous orchestrations of works by other composers, among other compositions. With such a volume of work, it is not surprising that he sought protection from "music piracy." In 1909, his testimony before the U.S. Congress helped secure passage of the Copyright Act of 1909, which allows composers to charge royalties on the sales of sound recordings. On February 13, 1914, he, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, and others, founded the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), of which he served as vice-president and director until his death. In 1917, Herbert won a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court that gave composers, through ASCAP, a right to charge performance fees for the public performance of their music, a right which has been upheld repeatedly since.
Victor Herbert died in New York City on May 24, 1924, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
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This page was last updated on 02/01/2018.