Come Again Eileen – Frank McNally on an overdue revival of Irish-American composer Victor Herbert

Dublin-born composer Victor Herbert: string of Broadway hits

Dublin-born composer Victor Herbert: string of Broadway hits


Nearly 70 years before Dexy’s Midnight Runners had a similar idea, the Dublin-born composer Victor Herbert set himself to creating a musical tribute to a woman called Eileen. 

He was at the height of his fame then in New York, his adopted city, with a string of Broadway hits behind him. And in writing a belated tribute to the Old Country, he first named his 1917 operetta Hearts of Erin. But it was quickly retitled after the lead female, and as such it has remained.

Links with the Dexys 1982 hit are not entirely limited to the name. Come on Eileen too was the work of an exile, or at least an English son of Mayo parents. Like Herbert’s operatta, it also concerned the cause of liberation: albeit sexual rather than political. 

But ore generally, it paid homage to the music of earlier eras, from “poor old Johnny Ray” (a 1950s rock-and-roller) to the “too-ra-loo-rye aye” songs (that “we can sing just like our fathers”). In the full version, it even begins with a riff from Thomas Moore’s smash hit of 1808, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.

Herbert’s career was located midway between Moore and Johnny Ray. After leaving Dublin in early childhood, when his father died, he grew up mostly in Germany, where he studied music and became a cellist. His earliest compositions were classical, and some, notably his Cello Concerto No 2 in E Minor, are still highly regarded.

That training was the basis from which, after moving to the US with his wife, the Viennese soprano Therese Förster, he relaunched himself as a popular composer, in New York’s Tin Pan Alley.  

It was a very different world from Vienna and Stuttgart, but Herbert’s background lent a structural sophistication to his work that set him apart from other vaudeville composers.  The results, on such operettas as The Serenade (1897) and Naughty Marietta (1910), was great critical and commercial success.

The Sererade had a Spanish theme, Naughty Marietta a French-Italian one. But not only was Herbert Dublin-born, he was descended from Irish artistic royalty, via his grandfather, the writer and composer Samuel Lover (1797-1868).  

Lover had created both a novel and a comic opera from the story of Rory O’More, a leader of the 1641 rebellion. So for Herbert’s own musical tribute to the land of his birth, he used that as a template, while resetting the action in the context of a later rebellion, 1798. 

With almost impeccable timing, Hearts of Erin made its stage debut in Cleveland on New Year’s Day 1917, as Ireland was still absorbing the implications of yet another Rising. Like so many of the rebellions, alas, the show was ill-fated.  

After a 64-night run in Boston, it went on US tour, three months into which a fire destroyed the set and all costumes.  

Although well received, at least for Herbert’s score (of the lyrics, by his regular partner Henry Blossom, one critic suggested they could not have been researched for more than “half an hour”), it would be unrevived anywhere until the end of the century.

After the first World War, Hebert reinvented himself again, less successfully, as a composer of musical comedies and for Broadway revues, especially the Ziegfeld Follies.  

But his music apart, he also earned a place in history as a copyright campaigner, ensuring that composers earned royalties from sales and performances. 

To this end, he helped found the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and it was ASCAP that commissioned the bust of Herbert in New York’s Central Park, unveiled in 1927, three years after his death.

Eileen’s intermittent comeback has included a 2014 recording by the “Orchestra of Ireland” and soloists. An otherwise glowing review of that complained of insufficient delineation of the different characters, so that “you need to guess whether you’re hearing smugglers, freedom fighters, the British, etc”. Perhaps a new, Brexit-era production will make those borders clearer.  

In the meantime, this February 1st is the 160th anniversary of Herbert’s birth.

And that milestone will be marked two days earlier, next Wednesday (30th), in the National Concert Hall.  

A full-scale Eileen is not on offer: in fact, under the heading of “A Night at the Operetta”, Herbert will share billing with other masters of the genre, including Franz Lehar, Jacques Offenbach, and Leonard Bernstein. But he is the main act, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and soloists including Claudia Boyle pressing a selection of songs, from Eileen, Naughty Marietta, and The Enchantress (1911).

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