America’s First Superstar

February is the month of Saint Brigid, but it is also the month in which Victor Herbert was born.  The  grandson of Irish composer, painter, and novelist Samuel Lover, he first saw the light of a Dublin day on February 1, 1859.  Young Victor spent much of his childhood at the home of his famous grandfather who influenced him greatly.  After his father died, Lover suggested that his widowed daughter send her son to Germany for an education.  His musical education began as a piccolo player, but he soon took up the cello in which he made rapid progress, playing in orchestras conducted by Liszt, Brahms, and other greats.  He became first cellist of the Stuttgart Court Opera, and engaged to marry Theresa Foerster, its leading soprano.  In 1886, a representative of the New York Metropolitan Opera came to Stuttgart in search of talent.  He offered a contract to Ms Foerster, and she insisted that her fiancé also be hired.  So it was that Victor Herbert came to America.

Victor  made quite an impression on New York Society, conducting concert performances and directing and playing in an excellent string quartet.  Although the darling of the elite, he always had an Irishman’s love for the music of the people.  In 1893, that love led him to be appointed leader of the famous 22nd Regiment Band of New York, which had been founded by another Irish musical great, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, author of When Johnny Comes Marching Home.  Herbert later became conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and while in this position, began composing light operettas and musical comedies.  His first operetta Prince Ananias was published in 1894 and it showed enough promise to bring him a commission which resulted in The Wizard of the Nile In 1895, still a newcomer, he ventured into musical comedy composing a song called My Angeline.   In 1896, he produced The Gold Bug and by 1897, when he came out with The Serenade and The Idol’s Eye.  A tradition had now been established and a new standard of light opera was created in America by an individual whose love for music led him to apply his incredible talent toward bringing more refined music to the common people.

Before Victor Herbert, popular music was either ragtime, vaudeville parodies or folk music.  He became the first to write pop music.  Sigmund Spaeth in his work A History of Popular Music in America, wrote, Victor Herbert was actually the first highly-trained musician to take an active part in the creation of popular music.  He was in fact the best trained, for his predecessors in this country had been mostly instinctive, often unable to play an instrument, and totally lacking in the ordinary technique of composition. Even Stephen Foster, who was another true (Irish-American) genius, could only work by ear.   Herbert had the double advantage of Irish birth and German training.

From a composing standpoint, Herbert debuted his Irish Rhapsody on April 20, 1892 at the annual Feis Ceoil of the Gaelic Society.  Upon hearing this piece, J.G. Huneker referred to Herbert as the “Irish Wagner.”  In 1897, Victor showed his skill as a composer of light orchestral works in Badinage which is still a standard.  His music to The Fortune Teller belongs to the serious, as well as the popular list of 1898.  The familiar Gypsy Love Song, as its top hit, has a refrain which was called a lullaby of real individuality and musical distinction.  In 1899, he wrote The Singing Girl, Cyrano deBergerac, and The Ameer.   By the end of the century, his name was on everyone’s lips for bringing music to the masses.  In 1900 he produced The Viceroy and in 1903 Babette, and the one for which he would be forever known, the incredibly popular and enduring Babes in Toyland.  Hollywood even benefitted when his greatest success Naughty Marietta, which he wrote in 1910, was later turned into a vehicle for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Victor Herbert was as American as they come, but he was also an Irishman, and a dedicated patriot.  He joined the Friends of Irish Freedom, the Gaelic Society, Cumann na Gaeilge, and founded the Irish Musical Society with Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th as well as the Glee Club of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.  His first opera Natoma debuted on Feb 25, 1911 in Philadelphia and at the Metropolitan Opera on Feburary 28, 1911 starring a new Irish tenor, John McCormack in his opera debut.  In 1917, he realized his long-standing intention to compose an Irish operetta, Eileen.

Victor Herbert contributed to American popular music until his death on March 27, 1924.  He left a great void, but it was filled with new composers for whom he had opened the way.  Men like Cohan, Hammerstein, Rogers & Hart, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and a whole street known as Tin Pan Alley benefitted from his genius.  He also founded ASCAP – the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers – and won the historic decision of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes that a composer’s creation could not be played without his permission.  Herbert was working on some music for the Ziegfeld follies on May 26, 1924 when he suddenly collapsed and died 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 Herbert goes beyond that of many composers, in fact he was America’s First Superstar.  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.

There have been many compositions, songs, and merry evenings between then and now in the halls of the Friendly Sons, and the Glee Club is still singing and  maintaining the high standard of excellence set by the great Victor Herbert – a true son of Ireland, and a loyal adopted son of this republic.  Perhaps his most enduring legacy came after joining the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1908.  The Friendly Sons had been organized just after the American Revolution to assist  homeless and penniless fellow Irishmen returning to post-war New York.   By 1911, he was second Vice President of the Friendly Sons, and in 1915, its President.  One of the first things he did upon becoming a member was to form a Glee Club with the assistance of then President Joseph Clarke in 1913.  Since that time, the Glee Club of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have gone from strength to strength, and have become renowned for their lyrical achievement.  With Victor Herbert composing for them as well as directing them, they couldn’t fail.  He and Clarke composed the now-famous Hail of the Friendly Sons – a tune the Glee Club has taken to many prestigious venues across the United States and Ireland.