Victor Herbert

Herbert whole


Victor Herbert

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.

"I Can't Do the Sum"

From Babes in Toyland, 1903
Music by Victor Herbert
Lyrics by Glen MacDonough

Verse 1

If a steamship weighed ten thousand tons
And sailed five thousand miles
With a cargo large of overshoes
And carving knives and files,
If the mates were almost six feet high
And the bos'n near the same,
Would you subtract or multiply
To find the captain's name?

Oh! Oh! Oh!
Put down six and carry two,
Gee, but this is hard to do.
You can think and think and think
Till your brains are numb,
I don't care what teacher says,
I can't do the sum.

Verse 2
If Clarence took fair Gwendolin
Out for an auto ride,
And if at sixty miles an hour
One kiss to capture tried,
And quite forgot the steering gear
On her honeyed lips to sup,
How soon could twenty men with brooms
Sweep Clare and Gwennie up?

(Repeat Refrain)

Verse 3
If Harold took sweet Imogene
With him one eve to dine,
And ordered half the hill of fare
With cataracts of wine,
If the bill of fare were thirteen ninety-five
And poor Harold had but four,
How many things would Harold strike
Before he struck the floor?

(Repeat Refrain)

Verse 4
If a woman had an English pug,
Ten children, and a cat,
And she tried in seven hours to find
A forty-dollar flat,
With naught but sunny outside rooms
In a neighborhood of tone,
How old would those ten children be
Before they found a home?

(Repeat Refrain)

Verse 5
If a pound of prunes cost thirteen cents
At half-past one today,
And the grocer is so bald he wears
A dollar-five toupee,
And if with every pound of tea
He will give two cut-glass plates,
How soon would Willie break his face
On his new roller skates?

(Repeat Refrain)