The most versatile composer of his time was Victor Herbert. His classical compositions for cello and piano were widely praised by fellow musicians and critical reviewers. They have lasted and are still fresh, in live performance, over a century later. He also could have had an outstanding career as a virtuoso cellist and symphonic conductor; however, he realized the financial rewards were slim in the area of classical music and that, for the most part, he would be playing or conducting the music of another composer.
Herbert started to write vocal music to see if he could produce anything of note. His first attempts were in the area of German Lieder (art songs). Musicologists agree the Herbert’s Lieder were very good, on the level of outstanding European composers. From this experience, he felt ready to graduate to a higher level, one where he would compose an entire score. The compositional form of his day was the operetta, usually imported from Europe. There was not only a good market for new operettas; there was a lucrative market for revivals of older operettas. Producers, needing new content, would commission composers, like Herbert, to write scores for new operettas. Looking back on the body of his work, his forty-six operettas contained a wide range of quality: some scores were of great merit; some were pleasant; some were unremarkable. However, as we look at his body of work, we see that his best operettas showed a progression of mastery of melody and harmony, ending with the one our Foundation restored and recorded, Eileen (1917.07).
If he had composed no other vocal music than that found in operettas, his legacy would have been intact; however, Herbert did more. Even during the period in which Herbert wrote operettas, he also wrote songs for revues, many of which are quite good and stand up well when compared to composers who wrote only popular music. Our Foundation has recorded 102 songs written by Herbert for some purpose other than for an operetta as a way of demonstrating the progression that Herbert made as he went from German Lieder to “Indian Summer.” But even with the evolution and improvement in compositional skills, Herbert realized that his skill would only take him so far.
While he was still alive (nine years before his death), Herbert came to the realization that his style of composition would be overtaken by a new generation of composers. He even understood that one composer in particular (Jerome Kern) was preparing to take his place. Thus, even as Eileen exhibited some of Herbert’s best writing in its 1917 debut, Kern had three shows on Broadway in the same year that had clearly progressed from operetta to a new, more intimate form of musical comedy. It is wrong to elevate one form of musical over the other; they are both good examples of shows that were appropriate for their eras. Further, because composers build on the work of their predecessors, it is important to remember that, without Herbert, we might not have had Kern.