Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life

Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life

Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life

Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life


Victor Herbert is one of the giants of American culture. As a musician, conductor, and, above all, composer, he touched every corner of American musical life at the turn of the century, writing scores of songs, marches, concerti, and other works. But his most enduring legacy is on a differentkind of stage, as one of the grandfathers of the modern musical theater.Now, Victor Herbert has the biography he deserves. Neil Gould draws on his own experience as a director, producer, and scholar to craft the first comprehensive portrait in fifty years of the Irish immigrant whose extraordinary talents defined the sounds of a generation and made contemporary Americanmusic possible.Mining a wealth of sources - many for the first time - Gould provides a fascinating portrait of Herbert and his world. Born in Dublin in 1859, Herbert arrived in the United States in 1886. From his first job in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera, Herbert went on to perform in countlessfestivals and concerts, and conduct the Pittsburgh Orchestra. In 1894, he composed his first operetta, Prince Ananias, and by the time of his death in 1924, he'd composed forty-two more - many of them, such as Naughty Marietta, spectacular Broadway hits. Along the way, he also wrote two operas,stage music for the Ziegfeld Follies, and the first full score for a motion picture, The Fall of a Nation. Gould brilliantly blends the musical and the theatrical, classical and popular, the public and the private, in this book. He not only gives a revealing portrait of Herbert the artist, entrepreneur, and visionary, but also recreates the vibrant world of the Herbert's Broadway. Gould takes us insidethe music itself - with detailed guides to each major work and recreations of great performances. He also makes strong connections between Herbert's breakthrough compositions, such as the operetta Mlle. Modiste, and the later contributions of Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern and othergiants of the musical theater. As exuberant as Herbert himself, this book is also a chronicle of American popular culture during one of its most creative periods. For anyone enraptured by the sound of the American musical, this book is delightfully required reading.


In 1992, the year the Victor Herbert Festival was established at Saratoga Springs, New York, I was standing in front of the Adelphi Hotel, the last survivor of Saratoga’s Gilded Age (the hotel, not me). A large poster announced, “Victor Herbert Returns to Saratoga”; it referred to a cabaret entertainment I was producing in the old ballroom at the Adelphi, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Herbert’s first performances with his orchestra at the Grand Union Hotel.

I was testing the waters—was there still an audience for the Herbert repertoire? As I busied myself positioning the poster, two teen-aged girls stopped to look.

“Victor Herbert! Who’s that?” one asked.

“Oh,” said the other, pulling her friend along, “he’s dead.”

Well, I thought, at least she knew that. It’s a start.

And it was, and not just for the girls. I had not grown up with any particular love for Herbert myself, although my work as a stage director specializing in light opera and operetta had led me around his traces. I had first been bitten by the operetta bug at a series of D’Oyly Carte performances, and during my years of work in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, by a combination of good fortune and osmosis, I had absorbed what the old routined chorus members of provincial theaters referred to as “Der echte Operettenstil”—genuine operetta production style. Those old guys in the chorus of the Landestheater Salzburg had been young chorus boys in the original productions of Lehar and Kalman ope over strong Romanian wine, they taught me the right way to do things.

Herbert’s earliest stage works came out of that same middle European tradition, but I had never seen them performed on the stage. The only Herbert material I had seen were films from the 1930s: Naughty Marietta, Sweethearts, and Babes in Toyland with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Those films seemed hokey and ridiculous; I wondered how such entertainment could ever have found a following that allowed Herbert to become a major force in the American musical theater. Were audiences that naive, more easily satisfied, or just plain dumb? Something must be missing from the picture, I felt. And so I read the three extant biographies.

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