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A man of vision

Victor Herbert,
the first composer to write for film,
investigated by JENNIFER PAULL


Movie music is noise. It's even more painful than my sciatica.

- Sir Thomas Beecham

In the early days of the last century, it would have been very difficult to imagine the amazing progress that has since been made in the art of cinema; the synchronisation of sound and image, amazing special effects, and lavish orchestrations.

The very first composer in this genre was Victor Herbert (1859-1924). In 1916 he wrote what was most probably the first through-composed score for a feature film, The Fall of a Nation, a silent epic. He was a man turned towards the future development of light music. In the last decade of his life, composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern often solicited his services to write the ballet scores for elaborate dance routines in their revues or shows.

Victor Herbert's father died when he was an infant. Born in Dublin, he grew up in London with his maternal grandfather, the celebrated Irish novelist, poet and composer, Samuel Lover. At the age of seven, his mother married a German physician, Wilhelm Schmid, and the family settled in Stuttgart.

He first played the piano but soon took up the 'cello. Turning to music as a career when financial difficulties prevented him from pursuing medicine, Herbert studied at the Stuttgart Konservatorium with Max Steinfritz.

He spent one year in the orchestra of the wealthy Russian, Baron Paul von Derwies, and another in Vienna as soloist with the orchestra of Eduard Strauss, who had succeeded his brother, Johann. To judge by his operettas, this period in Vienna was a most significant, formative experience. In 1881, he joined the court orchestra in Stuttgart where he met his future wife, Therese Förster, a soprano in the court opera. David Ewen's description of Herbert at the time was of a young man, 'slim and handsome with a carefully trimmed moustache and curly brown hair falling provocatively over his brow -- a man to command attention'.

It was during these five Stuttgart years that Victor Herbert appeared as soloist in his first two large-scale works, the Suite for 'Cello and Orchestra, Opus 3, and the Cello Concerto No 1, Opus 8.

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Copyright © 22 March 2002 Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland





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