Herbert, Victor (1859–1924), composer, was born 1 February 1859 in Dublin, son of Edward Herbert, artist, and Fanny Herbert (née Lover). Victor's father died when he was 3, and he was initially raised by his grandfather, the novelist and composer Samuel Lover (qv), in London. In 1866 his mother married Wilhelm Schmid, a German physician, resulting in the family moving to Germany. Educated in Stuttgart, Herbert displayed an early aptitude for music, especially with the violoncello. Prevented by financial difficulties from following his stepfather into medicine, he decided to continue his musical studies, and trained (1874–6) under Bernard Cossman before entering the Stuttgart conservatory. A skilled cellist, he was already composing songs, and toured Europe in various orchestras. In 1886 he left Germany and went to America, arriving in New York (24 October), where he was employed by the Metropolitan Opera Company as first cellist. He combined duties as a cellist and a teacher, touring as often as possible. In 1889 he was appointed to the National Conservatory of Music, and later came into contact with the composer Antonin Dvorák, who was so impressed with Herbert's second cello concerto (1894) that he wrote his own masterpiece in the form. In 1902 Herbert became an American citizen.
As a conductor he was in constant demand. In 1893 he was appointed leader of the 22nd Regiment band of the New York national guard, succeeding Patrick S. Gilmore (qv), and was later conductor (1898–1904) of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His successes led to the creation of the Victor Herbert Orchestra, which specialised in light music. Radio broadcasts ensured his works reached the widest possible audience, and his music achieved unprecedented popularity. Encouraged to write dramatic works in America, Herbert achieved most acclaim as a composer of operettas. In a prolific career he composed over forty such works, including the popular ‘Babes in Toyland’ (1903), ‘Naughty Marietta’ (1910), and ‘Her regiment’ (1917). He also contributed musical scores to the Ziegfeld Follies (1919, 1921, 1924). A tireless defender of the rights of writers, he was influential in deciding the American copyright law of 1909, and was a founder member, and vice-president, of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
Herbert's attempts at more serious music, however, met with an unreceptive audience. His Wagnerian opera ‘Natoma’, utilising Native American melodies, premiered in Philadelphia (25 February 1911) with John McCormack (qv) as tenor, but was not a success. His one-act opera ‘Madeline’ premiered in New York on 24 January 1914, but again audiences decided they preferred the lighter Herbert. He contributed a full symphonic score for the 1916 film ‘The fall of a nation’, possibly the first of its kind. He also made phonograph recordings of himself as cellist and conductor, working with the Thomas A. Edison Co. A committed Irish nationalist, he was president of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick and the Sons of Irish Freedom; his friends assumed he was a catholic and were surprised to discover after his death that he was an episcopalian.
He married (14 August 1886) Therese Forster, a soprano, in Vienna, and she accompanied him to America. Herbert died suddenly of a heart attack (26 May 1924) in New York. In 1939 a movie was made, ostensibly about his life, ‘The great Victor Herbert’; but this was really a light, romantic musical, and Variety reported that ‘audiences will learn very little about Victor Herbert’ from it.