Anyone who had the good fortune to meet composer Victor Herbert for the first time came away wondering just where the man came from. He spoke fluent German and English with an Irish brogue tinged with German overtones but carried an American passport.

The answer, it turns out, is that he came from Dublin, via London, to Stuttgart and then New York. He lost his Irish father when he was three, so his mother took him to England to live with her father, a novelist, and a composer. Not long after she married a German doctor and the family moved to Stuttgart where young Victor was to grow up.

For some reason, the boy was attracted to the cello and by the time he was 17 he was a peripatetic orchestral cellist and for a short time played in Eduard Strauss’s orchestra in Vienna. In 1881 he returned to Stuttgart as a member of the court orchestra, and when he was 26, the orchestra premiered his first composition, Cello Concerto no 1 and his Suite for cello and orchestra, both with Victor as soloist.

So how do we equate all this with the man who wrote and is best known for works like Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland? The answer is the German operatic soprano Therese Förster. The story goes that in 1886 the American conductor Walter Damrosch, then chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was searching Europe for new voices. He tried to secure the services of Fraulein Förster, but she explained that she was engaged to be married to a young cellist named Victor Herbert and could not leave him. Damrosch, as a result, engaged both, and that was how Herbert got to America.

An amiable, moustachioed lover of good food and drink, Herbert took to the American way of life like a fish to water. His first musical comedy, Prince Ananias, was not sufficiently successful to persuade him to give up his other work, so he took over the leadership of a military band and composed a new cello concerto. But his second musical, The Wizard of the Nile, was an enormous success and he went on to write 28 more, making him tremendously popular in the United States.

His assured and well-constructed melodies, his cultivated taste and superior technical abilities gained him considerable fame. He also wrote two grand operas, but they were not nearly as successful as his operettas – a term which he hated. His infectiously lyrical music was sadly often hamstrung by inane libretti, nevertheless Herbert was in popularity the American counterpart of the younger Johann Strauss, Jacques Offenbach, and Arthur Sullivan. For three years Herbert wrote music for the Ziegfeld Follies and a whole string of popular songs, the most famous of which is probably Ah, sweet mystery of life, which has been sung by everybody from Mario Lanza to Sarah Brightman and a whole lot more in between.

From 1898 to 1904 he gained further renown as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra which had been founded just three years earlier, and after that he returned to New York where he began his own 40-piece orchestra, the Majestic Orchestra Internationale, which he conducted and in which he served as cello soloist. The orchestra was largely devoted to light music.

Throughout his life, Herbert juggled his musical career with his personal relationships, and his life took a significant turn when he met and fell in love with a young woman named Ella Walters. Despite being married to Förster, Herbert and Walters began a clandestine affair, eventually leading to their marriage in 1904 after Förster’s death.

Herbert’s own death on May 26th, 1924, came as a surprise to all. A normally fit man, he died at the age of 65 from a sudden heart attack, and is buried in the Bronx, New York. A bust of him was erected in New York’s Central Park.

By Michael Morton-Evans.