Keith Brion: Victor Herbert Columbus Suite

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Victor Herbert Columbus Suite (1893)
Undated photo of Victor Herbert (1859-1924), A...
 Victor Herbert (1859-1924), American composer, cellist and conductor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Conducted by Keith Brion with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.

I. Dawn and Sunrise at Alhambra - 00:00
II. At La Rabida - 9:12
III. Murmurs of The Sea - 14:25
IV. Triumph - Vision of Columbus - 22:27

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, 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.

Victor Herbert memorial by Edmund Thomas Quinn...
Victor Herbert memorial by Edmund Thomas Quinn (1868-1929), Central Park, New York City, New York, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Columbus Suite is Victor Herbert's last major orchestral work. First performed on 2nd Janua
ry 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 processional.