In the early 20th century, many of America’s catchiest tunes were by Victor Herbert. Born in Ireland and trained in Germany, Herbert was recruited in 1886 for the Metropolitan Opera. There he played first cello while his wife, a soprano, sang principal roles. Starting in 1894 Herbert wrote some 40 operettas – many of which are still performed. If you don’t know Babes in Toyland, you must never have spent a Christmas season in America.
Herbert was eager to adopt new technology for distributing music. Back in the early 19th century, if you wanted to hear Beethoven, you had to attend a live performance. In the 1890s, soon after Herbert came to America, the first player pianos hit the market. By 1900, Thomas Edison’s phonograph was becoming popular.
The downside was that composers made much of their income from the sale of sheet music - and who needs sheet music, if a machine will play music for you? According to the copyright law of the time, if a publisher put music on a player-piano roll or a phonograph record, he didn’t have to pay the composer a cent. Herbert argued in the Supreme Court and before Congress that composers should rightfully be paid for such use of their music. The copyright law of 1909 granted protection to works that were published with a notice of copyright.
In 1914, Herbert was the prime mover behind the creation of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Representing some of the most prominent composers of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, ASCAP lobbied for the right of composers to collect royalties if their work was performed in public. This bust of Victor Herbert was commissioned by ASCAP, and some of New York’s most famous musicians attended the dedication: Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, Eddie Cantor, and Arthur Hammerstein.
From Babes in Toyland, 1903
Music by Victor Herbert
Lyrics by Glen MacDonough