In this Segment, we are going to briefly review the musical training and careers of the major composers of the pre-1943 period who were trained in Europe.

VICTOR HERBERT (1859-1924)

Victor Herbert, Father of American Musical

Victor Herbert

Victor Herbert was born in Dublin; his father died when he was two, and his mother remarried in 1866.  Her new husband, a doctor in Stuttgart, took his new wife and her beloved Victor back home with him in 1866.  During Herbert’s time in Stuttgart, when it was still part of Wurttemberg, next to Baden and Bavaria, he witnessed the creation of the new Germany in 1871, a vision of Bismark, an amalgamation of many, disparate cultures, from the edge of Austria to the Baltic Sea.

It was in this new Germany that Herbert studied cello, composition, harmony and counterpoint.  By the time he left for America in 1886, he was aware of much of Europe’s greatest contributions to music.

The European Musical Education of Victor Herbert

From the age of fifteen to seventeen, Herbert studied the cello with Bernhard Cossmann. He left Stuttgart to begin his European career as a cellist. His last orchestral job before returning to Stuttgart was with Eduard Strauss’ orchestra in its 1880-1881 Vienna season, an experience that undoubtedly provided him with an appreciation of the human voice and good music that was composed for it.  

When Herbert returned to Stuttgart, he studied theory, harmony and composition under Max Seifritz at the Stuttgart Conservatory.  Both of his teachers, Cossmann and Seifritz, were recognized masters in their fields of musical expertise.  

Herbert’s Development in America

Herbert came to America in 1886 as first cellist at the Metropolitan Opera Company, only twenty-one years after the Civil War had ended ;and he stayed long enough to see America emerge after WWI as the greatest nation on earth.

It was in this new world that Herbert blossomed as a cellist, conductor and composer.  His musical curiosity led to an appreciation of the new sounds found in the great melting pot of New York City, from its music halls to its vaudeville shows to its ragtime concerts.  The emerging African-American and Latin rhythms were already evident in his music when he published his composition Pan Americana in 1901.

Herbert continued to acquire an understanding of American popular music, as can be seen in the music that he wrote for revues, such as The Century Girl (1916.24), with his friend Irving Berlin.  One of his songs for that show, “The Romping Redheads,” bubbled over with the infectious energy of Tin Pan Alley and reflected the enthusiasm and aspirations of his adopted country.

Let’s compare Herbert’s compositions in or about the year 1917, starting with one of Herbert’s best duets, sung by many opera stars over the years.  From the operetta Eileen (1917.07), we are including an upload of a live performance of Thine Alone.”

Now, let’s listen to a rendition of “The Romping Redheads.”  The two singers are the wonderful Broadway stars Rebecca Luker and Sarah Jean Ford, accompanied by the gifted pianist, William Hicks. (Technical point:  if the playback stops around forty seconds, just move the red ball forward a bit and all will be fine.)

The American Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Herbert in 1970 and stated in his biography that he was “arguably the greatest influence on American theater, transitioning it from vaudeville and variety acts to operatic and story-based entertainment.”  You can hear for yourself in these examples of his work  that he could also transcend the narrow boundaries of classical music to embrace a broader set of art forms.


European Training

Sigmund Romberg was born in a European town that had two names, because both Austria and Hungary claimed it (Gross-Kaniza to the Austrians and Nagykanizsa to the Hungarians).  He went to Vienna to study engineering; but while there, because of his love for music (as a child, he had learned to play the violin at six and the piano at eight), he also took composition lessons.

Career in America

Sigmund Romberg Photo, Broadway Composer

Sigmund Romberg

Romberg emigrated to America in 1909 and was hired by the Shubert Brothers to write music for their Broadway shows.  He wrote his first successful Broadway revue in 1914, The Whirl of the World (1914.01), contributed songs to The Passing Shows of 1916 and 1918 and wrote music for three Al Jolson vehicles–Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916.03), Sinbad (1918.05) and Bombo (1921.34).  It is noteworthy that Jolson interpolated George Gershwin’s “Swanee” into Sinbad.

On occasion, more than one composer would be commissioned to write music for a show.  In these cases, quite often, the composers’ compositional strengths complemented each other.  For example, Romberg collaborated with Richard Rodgers on the music for Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920.25) and with Gershwin on the music for Rosalie (1928.03).

However, like Rudolf Friml, Romberg was never able to write popular music and is still best known for his operettas; between 1917 and 1928, he had six major works on Broadway:  Maytime (1917.15), Blossom Time (1921.31), The Student Prince in Heidelberg (1924.45), The Desert Song (1926.42), My Maryland (1927.42) and The New Moon (1928.29).

Listen to this beautiful rendition of “Serenade” from The Student Prince by Mario Lanza, who performed the vocals for the 1954 movie soundtrack. 

Unfortunately for us, Romberg’s compositional capacity never transitioned from operettas to a broader range.

RUDOLF FRIML (1879-1972)

European Training


Rudolf Friml

Rudolf Friml was born in Prague and started his studies at the Prague Conservatory in 1895.  He studied piano and composition with Antonin Dvorak and served as accompanist to Jan Kubelik, with whom he toured twice in the United States.  Friml moved to America in 1906 and premiered his Piano Concerto in B Major in 1906 under the direction of Walter Damrosch (New York Symphony).

Career in America

Friml’s introduction to the Broadway stage occurred because of a professional dispute between soprano Emma Trentini and composer Victor Herbert.  He was given the opportunity to write the score for The Firefly (1912.46), which started a brilliant career in writing operettas for the Broadway stage.

Friml wrote a number of operettas; but, after The Firefly, his greatest contributions came in three shows in the mid-1920’s:  Rose-Marie (1924.28), The Vagabond King (1925.32) and The Three Musketeers (1928.12).

Listen to this exquisite rendition by Mario Lanza as he sings “Some Day” from The Vagabond King.  

 If Romberg was unable to make the transition from operetta to popular song, Friml was unwilling to take that step.  Contrast Friml’s attitude with that of his teacher, Dvorak.  Dvorak came to New York in 1892 to become Director of the National Conservatory of Music, worked closely with Herbert and was was immediately influenced by the new sounds he heard in America.  According to David Ewen: 

“Dvorak became an avowed enthusiast of the spiritual.  He wrote: ‘In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.  They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay….  It is music that suits itself to any mood and purpose.’  

“Dvorak himself began to use authentic Negro material in his serious compositions, notably in his Symphony from the New World, written in this country.  In the first movement there is a passing quotation from ‘Swing low, Sweet Chariot;’ and in the second, there appears a famous melody that has the unmistakable character of an authentic spiritual, even though it is original with Dvorak.”

Who knows what splendid, new music might have been created if only Friml had been willing to take that leap forward.  


Classical Music Education

RODGERS-AND-HART-composersAlthough Richard Rodgers received his musical education in the United States, it is  clear that his education at the Institute of Musical Art was deeply rooted in the European traditions.  In early 1921, Rodgers enrolled in the Institute (now the Juilliard School) where he studied harmony with Percy Goetschius, music theory with Franklin T. Robinson, ear training with George Wedge and music appreciation/critical analysis with Henry Krehbiel.

Career in America

Rodgers started writing music with Lorenz Hart that can best be described as popular songs for the revue, The Garrick Gaieties (1925.17), for The Theatre Guild in 1925.  However, his first full score was for Dearest Enemy (1925.31), which is best described as an operetta along the lines of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In the following seventeen years, Rodgers and Hart wrote scores for the next edition of The Garrick Gaieties, nine films, and twenty-four Broadway and London shows. Rodgers’ last show with Hart was a revision of their 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee.

Following Hart’s death in 1943, Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II worked together for the next sixteen years, starting with the Theatre Guild’s production of Oklahoma! In 1943.  In total, Rodgers and Hammerstein created eight musicals, one film, State Fair, and one television special, Cinderella.

Breadth of Compositional Skills

Rodgers was classically trained but was comfortable in many areas of musical composition.  The astounding fact was that Rodgers proved to be excellent in all musical forms, whether they were in the areas of Broadway scores, ballets or musical suites.  In the area of Rodgers’ ballets, it is one thing to commission a genius like George Balanchine to choreograph a ballet for a Broadway show (On Your Toes, 1936.05); it is quite another thing for Balanchine to request permission to incorporate the same ballet (Slaughter On Tenth Avenue) into his repertoire at the New York City Ballet.  The first instance represents a job; the second instance represents recognition of musical talent.

Finally, working with Robert Russell Bennett, Rodgers wrote twelve musical themes for use in the television series, Victory at Sea.  The DVD’s of the series are still being sold in large numbers, as are the records and CD’s of the music.

So, far we have discussed two composers, Herbert and Rodgers, who stood out as examples of men trained in classical composition who became masters of more than one form of musical composition.  We are about to look at a third such composer: George Gershwin.  


Classical Musical Training

George Gershwin1937, American Composer

George Gershwin

Born in 1898 in Brooklyn, George Gershwin started to get interested in music when he was ten.  The family was of Russian/Ukrainian heritage and had bought a piano for the older brother, Ira.  To everyone’s surprise and Ira’s relief, George enjoyed playing the piano and studied music in 1913 with Charles Hambitzer, who was according to George “the first great musical influence on my life.”  Hambitzer introduced Gershwin to the music of Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Claude Debussy and referred Gershwin to Edward Kilenyi for instruction in harmony and theory for an extended period, now estimated to be four years (1919-1923).  It is also possible that Gershwin studied composition with Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and Joseph Brody; however, this has not been confirmed.

Career in America

It is important to note how early Gershwin was able to hear and imitate the new sounds of ragtime music.  Not an easy art to acquire, on his own by 1916, he had mastered the art of ragtime piano.  Eubie Blake recalled that “James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts told me of this very talented ofay piano player at Remick’s.  They said he was good enough to learn some of those terribly difficult tricks that only a few of us could master.”

Gershwin went on to write a number of excellent scores for the stage and screen, out of which came a large number of American standards.

However, when we look at Gershwin from the viewpoint of his ability to transcend genres, what is truly amazing is his ability to work on serious classical projects while simultaneously working on Broadway.  In 1922, he worked with Buddy De Sylva to write a one-act opera, Blue Monday.  In 1924, he debuted his Rhapsody in Blue, in 1925 Concerto in F, in 1928 An American in Paris, in 1931 Second Rhapsody, in 1932 Cuban Overture and in 1935 the masterpiece of his life or that of any other American composer, the opera  Porgy and Bess (1935.13).

If ever there was a composer who let his “musical heart” fly with the wind, it was George Gershwin.  Who knows what he would have gone on to write if he had not died in his thirties.