Notes and Editorial Reviews
In an attempt to understand the foundations of the modern American musical theater, we believe that it is best to start with an understanding of the man who has often been called the Father of the American Musical Theater, Victor Herbert (1859-1924). For our second release in this new series, we have chosen a selection of Herbert's compositions for the voice, most of which are recorded here for the first time. His song output runs the gamut of styles classical and popular at the turn of the twentieth century, from parlor and concert song to anthem and popular song. In some of them, the lines blur. His vaudeville numbers and "Belle O Brien" are written in the style of what we would term songs of the Gay Nineties, like "After
the Ball" or "The Bowery." On the other hand, "When the Sixty-ninth Comes Back," with its references to the harp that once played in Tara's halls and to "the Fighting Irish," may be a stirring American march but will appeal strongly to Irish sympathies. In this anthology, 102 songs are presented as examples of his work. While a few songs written for well-known musicals and operettas may be found here, the emphasis has been placed on songs for occasion and event, along with much of the music he wrote for performance in plays and revues. Many of these songs have never before been recorded, and they are presented in chronological order to display his progression from art song to the popular 32-bar song. Jerome Kern referred to Herbert as "the greatest of them all," high praise coming from a great songwriter like Kern.
Marnie Breckenridge, George Dvorsky, Sara Jean Ford, Steven LaBrie, Aaron Lazar, Jeanne Lehman, Rebecca Luker, Daniel Marcus, Dillon McCartney, Jonathan Michie, Ron Raines, Valerian Ruminski, Zachary Stains, Rosalie Sullivan, Korliss Uecker, Margaret Jane Wray
R E V I E W S:
Marnie Breckenridge, Sara Jean Ford, Jeanne Lehman, Rebecca Luker, Korliss Uecker, Margaret Jane Wray (sop); Rosalie Sullivan (mez); George Dvorsky, Dillon McCartney, Zachary Stains (ten); Jonathan Michie, Steven LaBrie (bar); Valerian Ruminski (bs); Aaron Lazar, Daniel Marcus, Ron Raines (voice); William Hicks (pn)
NEW WORLD 80726 (4 CDs: 293:37
Text and Translation)
When I interviewed Jerry Grossman and William Hicks about their album of Victor Herbert works for cello and piano in
35:6, Hicks mentioned a soon-to-arrive New World release containing 102 Herbert songs divvied up among 16 singers. I just didn’t realize it would be arriving this soon or that it would be coming to me. But here it is, a four-disc set produced as part of a larger project titled
The Foundations of the American Musical Theater.
Frankly, I may not be the best of the magazine’s contributors to cover this voluminous and obviously important collection, for I’m not really familiar with Herbert’s vocal output, nor am I familiar with any of the artists named in the headnote, all of whom are mainly veterans of musical theater, screen, and television rather than of the concert and opera stages. I enjoy a good Broadway musical as much as anyone, but the Great White Way with its multitude of producers, stage directors, set and costume designers, actors, singers, arrangers, and musicians is a world unto itself and not one about which I can claim any significant knowledge. But I shall try my best.
To begin with, these four discs contain but a sampling of Herbert’s total song output. Most of the selections, according to Larry Moore, Sean O’Donoghue, and Gary B. Holt’s detailed and extensively researched album notes, are recorded here for the first time. Unfortunately, we’re not told which ones they are. Also unfortunate but understandable, given the size of this collection, the only texts printed in the booklet are for the first 22 songs on disc 1, all of which Herbert happens to have set to poems in German. Helpfully, both the original German and English translations are given. For the remaining 83 songs, which are in English, should you want or need to see the texts, you will find them at newworldrecords.org.
The few songs that are likely to be familiar, such as “She Was a Country Girl” and “Don’t Be a Villain” from
Babes in Toyland
, are those that come from Herbert’s popular musicals and operettas, but the bulk of this survey comes from songs the composer wrote for performance in plays and revues.
Presentation of the material is chronological, divided into what may be viewed as Herbert’s four creative periods. Disc 1, as noted, contains 19 German songs written between 1888 and 1894. Though born in Ireland, Herbert received much of his musical education in Germany, graduating in 1879 from the Stuttgart Conservatory. It was there that he was exposed to the German
tradition of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, Liszt, and Brahms. At the time Herbert composed these songs, however, he was not still in Germany. By 1886, he’d already moved to New York with his opera-singing wife, Therese Förster, who was appearing in a number of works by Wagner and others at the Met.
It’s likely that Herbert wrote most or all of these 22 songs either for Therese or for Emma Juch, a celebrated soprano who made her New York debut at the Academy of Music in 1881 and then went on to form her own opera company, which opened with a production of
at the Grand Opera House in Los Angeles in 1890. Accordingly, most of these songs are sung here by four of the female voices listed in the headnote, though for variety’s sake, a few of them are parceled out to three of the male voices.
Disc 2 covers the period 1894–1906. These were crucial years in Herbert’s concert platform career. His Second Cello Concerto premiered in 1894, and between 1898 and 1904 he served as principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. After resigning that post, he formed his own orchestra, the Victor Herbert Orchestra, and with that ensemble he made a number of acoustical recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The year 1903 also saw production of what would become Herbert’s greatest hit, the proto-Broadway musical
Babes in Toyland
. From this period, disc 2 brings us 25 songs, some of them standalones, others from Herbert’s operettas, such as
, and still others from song cycles, such as
The Bards of Ireland.
Disc 3 covers the period 1907–21 with a total of 27 songs. During the earlier years of this period, Herbert was still on top of his game, continuing to compose operettas, among which were another two hits,
(1913). But toward the end of this period, with the outbreak of World War I and newer styles of music on the rise, Herbert began to slow down and withdraw from the labor-intensive activity of producing his own large stage works. Instead, he provided a good deal of music for the Broadway shows and revues of others, such as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. He also remained a regular contributor of music to the Ziegfeld Follies. From this period, disc 3 gives us more stand-alone songs, items Herbert provided for plays such as
The Cinderella Man
The Dream Song
, and quite a few numbers he composed for the Ziegfeld Follies.
Disc 4, headed “1922–Posthumous,” covers the last two and a half years of Herbert’s life and includes quite a few songs that were either published after the composer’s death or that remain unpublished. From 1922–23, there are another seven numbers written for the Ziegfeld Follies, but of the 28 total songs on disc 4, most are standalones that are not identified as being associated with any specific theatrical production.
Half of the artists on these discs, I learned from the notes, are singing actors and actresses acclaimed for their work on and off Broadway, in musical theater, live plays, cabaret, and television. The other half, however—Marnie Breckenridge, Steven LaBrie, Jonathan Michie, Valerian Ruminski, Zachary Stains, Rosalie Sullivan, Korliss Uecker, and Margaret Jane Wray—have also been active in opera, appearing in major productions in houses here and abroad.
Using ArkivMusic as my search tool, admittedly not the most comprehensive listing of available recordings, I checked to see if any of these names turned up in opera productions. Of the eight named, I found three: Zachary Stains, who sings in a number of Handel operas, a Vivaldi opera, and Monteverdi’s
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria
; Korliss Uecker, who sings in two Met productions led by James Levine, Wagner’s
; and Margaret Jane Wray, who can be heard on a Naxos CD of scenes from Wagner operas, and in two recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, one with Michael Gielen on Hänssler, the other with Robert Shaw on Telarc. Perhaps readers with more knowledge of these singers than I have will be able to cite recordings of mainstream classical vocal repertoire in which the other eight singers have participated.
I’ve saved for last the artist of greatest importance in this whole project, pianist William Hicks. It’s hard to imagine what a daunting undertaking it must have been to learn the accompaniments to 102 songs, and yet there is not one of them in which he sets a foot wrong or fails to find the right mood and tone. Hicks is to be congratulated not just for his tireless dedication to this important collection but for his consistently high level of musicianship in every sense of the word.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
"It's a wonderful feeling, finding an eye-opening, ear-opening dazzling treasure-chest of songs with melodies by a master, many of which have never (or rarely) been recorded...The mammoth
Collected Songs gathers musical theatre performers like Rebecca Luker, Ron Raines and Aaron Lazar, and opera singers presenting a whopping 101 vocals tracks (there's also one instrumental) on a four-disc boxed set with pages of historical notes.
Accompaniment is the versatile, song-serving pianist William Hicks who lets the song be front and center, never distracting, but forceful and energizing when need be, and gentle and understated when embellishment would be overkill. The singers embrace the styles comfortably, seeming to be neither aloof nor cautiously intimidated by the floweriness, stiffer stances or lushness. No sense of condescension to the idealistic images or attitudes is apparent. Respect and integrity are the keywords here, with the approach and style, with some surviving arrangements used. Affection is evident, too.
The great breadth and variety of styles in Herbert's work stands out on this fascinating historical survey. There are brisk and stirring marches, sweeping waltzes, the heavy-duty and the light, sprightly tunes, quirky character set-pieces and jaunty vaudeville turns, serious-toned compositions that resemble art songs, many lilting nods to Ireland. The industrious preparers of this Herculean effort have uncovered a lot that was below the tip of the visible iceberg, mostly staying away from the best-known pieces.
Just one part of the label's dedication to earlier musical theatre, the Herbert collection is a powerful and persuasive case for the composer's importance, influence, and versatility... there are plenty of reasons—102, to be precise—to be enthused about this collection. "
-- Rob Lester, Talkin' Broadway
Works on This Recording
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