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ClassicsOnline Home » HERBERT, V.: Columbus Suite / Irish Rhapsody
Victor Herbert (1859-1924)
Columbus Suite / Irish Rhapsody
Auditorium Festival March / Selections from Natoma
Victor Herbert, beloved name in American music, was one
of the most prodigiously multi-talented musicians in our history. He was a
major orchestral conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony, and even a candidate to be
music director of the New York Philharmonic), orchestral, opera and film score
composer, presenter of pops concerts (The Victor Herbert Orchestra), a
fabulously successful bandmaster (he led New York's 22nd Regiment Band which competed
with Sousa), a leading composer of Broadway musicals (nearly fifty in all,
including Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta and The Red Mill)
and, to top it off, for a time he was America's premier solo cellist.
Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1859. He grew up
and received his musical training in Germany, finally coming to America at the
age of 27 to play principal cello at the Metropolitan Opera. Upon arrival in New
York in 1886 he began a whirlwind of musical activities - composing,
conducting and solo playing - that were to mark all of his brilliant career. He
died in 1924. Herbert was a man of genial character, but with a quick wit and
great warmth of personality. A friend described him as "full of heart ...and
it is only a good heart that can produce the kind of melody that Victor put
into his songs. A fine character shows in music, and his was one of the
finest." * As a conductor, Herbert was known for his subtle and flexible
sense of musical style. While he cared a great deal for his players, he always
demanded their finest performances. This recording showcases four of Victor
Herbert's "serious" orchestral compositions, several dating from his
time as director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Herbert became conductor
in Pittsburgh in 1898, and built the orchestra into a superb ensemble,
frequently touring to New York's Carnegie Hall. Two of these works, the Columbus
Suite and Auditorium Festival March, date from his Pittsburgh
career. Eventually the pull of Broadway returned Herbert to New York. During
the rest of his life, except for his two grand operas, his compositional
efforts turned almost exclusively to musical theatre and film.
The Columbus Suite is Victor Herbert's last major
orchestral work. First performed on 2nd January 1903, it had its genesis ten
years earlier. Herbert was approached by producer Steele McKaye, who wished to
create an enormous spectacle for the Chicago World Fair of 1893. The fair,
called the "Columbian Exposition", celebrated the 400th anniversary
of Columbus's voyage.
McKaye had raised a considerable sum of money. His
"dream" included a huge auditorium or "spectatorium"
housing a "spectatorio" called "The Great Discovery" or
"The World Finder" to depict and interpret the physical and spiritual
adventures of Columbus as he daringly sailed westward to find the
New World.* McKaye envisioned Columbus's ship sailing
bravely across a sea of mechanical waves. He commissioned Herbert and Dvorak to
supply the "majestic orchestral portion" of the "new Dramatic
art-form".* Both agreed, but when McKaye failed to raise the balance of
the money, the entire project collapsed.
Herbert's biographer, Edward Waters, suggests Dvorak may
have been spurred by the commission to collect the materials that later led to
his "New World" Symphony. Herbert, on the other hand, worked
quickly. By June 1893 he had already completed a work called The Vision of
Columbus. It is likely that another movement, Sunrise at Granada,
was finished at the same time. A decade later, in Herbert's last season in Pittsburgh,
he utilised these materials as the first and concluding movements of a new four
movement Columbus Suite.
Two new inner movements were added in December 1902, just
in time for the premiere of the Suite.
The opening, Dawn and Sunrise at Alhambra,
describes an increasingly brightening morning image of the great Moorish castle
of Ferdinand and Isabella. The second movement, At La Rabida (At the
Convent), portrays the spiritual implications of the journey, first quietly
heralded, then signaling anticipation and dread of a dangerous passage. An
organ quietly invites more peaceful reflection, giving strength and inspiration
for the journey. A voice of rising affirmation leads to a grand, majestic
sailing motive (also the triumphant theme of the finale), here interspersed
with passages of foreboding. An inspirational benediction, played softly and
reverently by the organ and brass, ends the movement. Murmurs of the Sea
is a gently reflective description of a long, hypnotic ocean journey. The
finale, first called A Vision of Columbus, later The Triumph
of Columbus, begins with low strings evoking swelling seas,
eventually rising to become a powerfully surging and victorious nautical
Herbert's popular Irish Rhapsody (1893) is a
brilliant collection of symphonically interwoven Irish songs and dances from
his native land. Composed in 1892 for the Gaelic Society of America, it was
first heard at their meeting in New York with Herbert conducting. The music
prompted one writer to proclaim Herbert as "The Irish Wagner".
Thematic selections included are All Those Endearing Young Charms, To Sadies
Eyes, Come O'er the Sea and Rich Natoma and Madeline (1913) were Herbert's
only grand operas. Natoma was based on American Indian themes and was
first staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1911. Herbert wrote of it: "1
have composed all of Natoma's music, at least the greater part of it,
out of fragments of Indian music, which I have collected and studied for some
time past. However, I have pursued none of these melodies to their logical
conclusion. If I used Indian music with all its original intervals and
cadences, it would become very monotonous, and so, of course, I have adapted
it. But I have fashioned melodies by using fragments of this and that Indian theme.
There is also the question of harmonization. Indian music is not harmonized,
and the moment a musician harmonizes it he has made it into something
different. I hope, however, to have achieved the result I was striving for, to
suggest the Indian character. In (one) instance, the Dagger Dance, I
have introduced Indian tune almost verbatim, of course with my own harmonization."
While it is doubtful that Herbert achieved much that was
Indian in character, nonetheless, the music is powerful, inventive, passionate
and wonderfully melodic. These "selections" from the opera were
chosen and arranged by Herbert for publication.
The Auditorium Festival March (1901) is another of
Herbert's symphonic compositions created for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Herbert desired to tour his orchestra into Chicago's Auditorium Theater. This
grand building, designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, was then the
home of Theodore Thomas and his Chicago Symphony. The Chicago management appeared
insecure about presenting what they thought was a much inferior orchestra. They
insisted on two conditions; 1, A new “popular” piece by Herbert, and 2, at
least two soloists for each concert (probably suggested so that the Pittsburgh orchestra
would not be the focus of attention), Herbert was unhappy about both condition,
but responded with the composition of his Auditorium Festival March. In
the end, the Chicago manager actually received four soloists.
For his new composition, Herbert asked the Chicago
audiences be informed that: “I have written a Grand Festival March in honour if
the 12th anniversary of the Chicago Auditorium. Please make them
understand that it is not a two-step, but an elaborate Grand March. I
have introduced in the piece Auld Lang Syne.” “Elaborate” is a wonderful
understatement. Herbert obviously wrote a piece to “get even”. It splendidly
showcased the orchestra’s talents; along with great tunes and virtuosic
orchestration, there are brilliant features for every section of the orchestra.
* Victor Herbert, A life in Music by Edward N. Waters.
MacMillan Co., New Work, 1955.
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HERBERT, V.: Columbus Suite / Irish Rhapsody