About this Recording
8.573517 - HERBERT, V.: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Irish Rhapsody (Kosower, Ulster Orchestra, Falletta)

Victor Herbert (1859–1924)
Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 • Irish Rhapsody


There was a time, in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, when Victor Herbert was one of the best-known names in American music. He was lionised in New York society, first as a cellist, then as a conductor and finally as the composer of popular light operas. Now that such shows as Naughty Marietta, with its hit song Ah, sweet mystery of life, are rarely staged, his reputation is kept alive, ironically, by a cello concerto which was forgotten until Julian Lloyd Webber revived it in the mid-1980s.

Herbert was Irish, something he traded on in America where there was a vast diaspora of Irish immigrants; but his musical upbringing was wholly German. When he first arrived in New York, he was referred to in the press as Herr Victor Herbert, and he always spoke with a slight German accent. He was born in Dublin on 1st February 1859 but when he was three, his father died and Victor moved with his mother to London to live with her parents—his grandfather Samuel Lover was a writer and composer. When Victor was five, his mother married a German doctor, and a year later the boy joined her and his stepfather in Stuttgart. He attended the local gymnasium and, thwarted in his desire to become a doctor, on financial grounds, concentrated on his obvious musical gifts. After learning the piano, flute and piccolo, all of which later stood him in good stead, he took up the cello at 15, studying with the well-known German virtuoso Bernhard Cossmann in Baden-Baden. From around 1877 he toured central Europe as a cellist: he had a spell with the orchestra sponsored by Baron Paul von Derwies and a year in Vienna with the Eduard Strauss Orchestra, playing waltzes and polkas.

In 1881 he returned to Stuttgart as solo cellist at the Wurttemberg Court Opera: this position gave him the opportunity to study harmony, orchestration and counterpoint with the conductor Max Seifriz, a friend of Liszt and Wagner. In the weekly symphony concerts he premiered both his Suite for Cello and Orchestra and his First Cello Concerto. Falling for one of the sopranos, Therese Forster, he married her in 1886 and soon after that the Herberts emigrated to New York, where they had both been engaged by the Metropolitan Opera, she as a soloist—although she stayed for little more than a season and soon retired to support her husband’s career—and he as a cellist. Herbert joined the string quartet led by the American violinist Sam Franko (later by Louis Schmidt) and played as principal in the Theodore Thomas Orchestra until 1891, appearing as soloist in Brahms’s Double Concerto, Saint-Saëns’s A minor Concerto and those by Raff and Rubinstein. He began conducting as assistant to Anton Seidl at summer concerts in Brighton Beach and as Carl Zerrahn’s assistant at the Worcester Festival. From 1889 he was on the teaching staff of the new National Conservatory of Music. In 1893 he became conductor of the 22nd Regiment Band and the following year wrote his first operetta, Prince Ananias. Two more followed before he took a break from the theatre to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony (1898–1904), with success until he fell out with the management. In 1903, with Babes in Toyland, he inaugurated a sequence of his most successful operettas, lasting until 1917. Meanwhile in 1907 he founded the Victor Herbert Orchestra, with which he toured until his sudden death on 26th May 1924 in New York.

Victor Herbert simply poured out music, for the stage—other composers’ shows as well as his own—the concert hall, the band repertoire, Tin Pan Alley and various light music outlets. He recorded for Edison and the Victor Talking Machine Company. He did an immense amount of work for composers’ copyrights and helped to found ASCAP. His two operas did not do as well as his lighter fare, even though Natoma, premiered by the Metropolitan Opera company in Philadelphia in 1911, had Mary Garden and John McCormack in the cast. His name will be remembered as long as good tunes are still appreciated; and a few of his orchestral works, such as those on this recording, keep a toehold in the concert halls and the record catalogues. The two cello concertos may have been rather pushed to one side by the creations of Dvořák, Elgar, Shostakovich and so on, but they have interesting features, as well as being unfailingly easy on the ear.

The D major Concerto, composed in 1884, was premiered at Stuttgart in 1885, with Herbert as soloist and Hofkapellmeister Johann Joseph Abert conducting. A local critic commented: ‘Herr Herbert, whose excellent Suite for Cello and Orchestra was received with great acclaim last winter, has composed a Cello Concerto which is equally praiseworthy. It displays the same characteristics as his Suite: it is fresh and sensitive with a fine sense of melody. The Concerto is much more challenging technically but these challenges were easily overcome by the composer, who is a master of his instrument.’ Herbert played it again at Steinway Hall, New York, on 10th December 1887, with Theodore Thomas on the podium. As his exemplars, Herbert took the concertos of Georg Goltermann (1824–98), several of which he played, but his writing for both cello and orchestra is rather freer. The Concerto is scored for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, strings, harp and timpani. The forthright yet easeful opening theme of the Allegro con spirito is expounded at some length by the orchestra and the soloist then ruminates on it: the second theme has a more yearning character and a subsidiary third theme is faster. The structure is quite loose: the first theme is used for most of the development and the second theme comes into its own later in the movement. Herbert allows for the soloist to improvise a cadenza. The songlike outer sections of the Andante enclose the Scherzo (Vivace), an unusual alternative to the contrasting theme one would normally expect in a ternary slow movement. After some introductory flourishes, the finale reveals itself as an exciting polonaise, which takes the solo cello up quite high and demands a fair degree of virtuosity.

The E minor Concerto was dedicated to the Philharmonic Society of New York and premiered by them at Music Hall on 9th March 1894, with Herbert as soloist and Anton Seidl conducting. The critic of The New York Times did not bother to attend the concert and went instead to the afternoon public rehearsal, delivering himself of a lot of patronising remarks and admitting that the work showed ‘good handicraft’ before concluding: ‘All that need be said here is that if a man feels driven to the verge of composition, it is well that he understands the technics as well as Mr Herbert. It is a pity that the gods did not bless him with a violin.’ An infinitely more interested observer, in the evening, was Herbert’s boss at the National Conservatory, Antonín Dvořák: he was amazed to hear how Herbert handled a biggish orchestra—the same as in the First Concerto, without the harp—and contrived not to mask the solo cello. Afterwards Dvořák embraced Herbert in the Green Room, exclaiming: ‘Famos! Famos! Ganz famos!’ (‘Splendid! Splendid! Absolutely splendid!’) The great Czech cellist Hanus Wihan had been on at Dvořák for some time to write him a concerto, and hearing Herbert’s fine work led directly to the composition of the B minor Concerto, perhaps Dvořák’s greatest single masterpiece.

Herbert’s Second Concerto understandably shows an advance on the First and is more tightly constructed. The solo cello sings even more convincingly on the A string. The rhetorical opening to the Allegro impetuoso is quickly taken up by the soloist and the entire movement is more or less monothematic, as all the motifs, including a more flowing second theme, are related to the first theme. We are led via a brief bridging Lento straight into the Andante tranquillo, with an eloquent main theme and a broad contrasting theme. As in the First Concerto, Herbert challenges the soloist with quite a virtuosic finale.

The Irish Rhapsody for Grand Orchestra, a blatant but enjoyable piece of Oirishry, was composed in 1892 to a commission from the Gaelic Society of America, who received the dedication, and premiered by Seidl in his last Sunday-evening concert of the season, at the Lenox Lyceum on 24th April that year. Herbert himself conducted the Rhapsody at the Gaelic Society’s 1893 meeting in New York. It is scored for double woodwind with piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, strings, harp, percussion and timpani. Herbert strings a series of then-popular Irish melodies together with considerable skill: today’s listeners will recognise ‘Believe me if all those endearing young charms’ and Garry Owen, but perhaps only the Irish will pick up To Sadie’s Eyes; Come O’er the Sea; Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore; and Erin, Oh Erin. Herbert finally weaves several of them together in a display of sturdy German contrapuntal expertise.

Tully Potter

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