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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: A Few Thoughts on "Babes in Toyland" and the World of Operetta

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A Guest Blog on Victor Herbert's Birthday by Professor William Everett

The Absence of Native, Basis for American Opera, Victor Herbert, 1859-1924, composer of popular music., Digital ID 100003, New York Public LibraryVictor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland is typical of turn-of-the-century musical theater in that it encompasses various musical styles and tropes drawn from multiple genres. Musical comedy, as Babes in Toyland is described in the libretto, is evident in the comedic dialogue and contemporary references. Extravaganza, the designator it shares with The Wizard of Oz, comes through dazzling spectacle. But it is operetta, the quintessential Continental European style, that concerns us here.

Herbert was born in Dublin on February 1, 1859, and after the death of his father in 1862, moved to London with his mother. In 1867, his mother married a German physician, Carl Schmidt, and young Victor went to Stuttgart, where he played the flute and piccolo, and later the cello, in various orchestras. He graduated from the Stuttgart Conservatory in 1879, and in 1880, became cello soloist with Eduard Strauss’s orchestra in Vienna. Herbert participated in various musical activities in the years that followed. On August 14, 1886, he married soprano Therese Förster (1861-1927), and in October of that year, the newlyweds moved to New York, where she became a soloist at the Metropolitan Opera and he was hired as principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Herbert’s Continental experiences, which influenced the entirety of his impressive musical career, are clearly manifested in Babes in Toyland. When it comes to operetta, a genre he experienced first hand in Vienna, the idea of an imaginary realm and a glorious musical score emerge as central features of the 1903 work.

Toyland is a mythical realm that follows in the grand operetta tradition of created locales filled with colorfully dressed characters whose favorite pastimes seem to be dancing and singing. Act 1 of Babes in Toyland begins in typical operetta fashion with an energetic folk dance performed by peasants in eye-catching garb. Act 2 begins with a trademark ensemble waltz. One can think of the colorful costumes of the theatrical imaginings of real-world places such as Hungary in Johann Strauss II’s Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron, 1885) or those in Herbert’s work before Toyland: Spain in The Serenade (1897), Hungary in The Fortune Teller (1898), and Austria in The Singing Girl (1899). (Later, imaginary Ruritanian kingdoms somewhere in Mitteleuropa or the Balkans would become the norm, such as Pontevedro in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow [1905].)

In addition to the setting, Herbert’s effusive musical score for Babes in Toyland speaks to the world of operetta, a genre famous for its waltzes and marches. When most people think of Babes in Toyland, the first thought is usually the music, especially “March of the Toys” and “Toyland.” The well-known “March of the Toys” is a grand 6/8 march in the spirit of the title march from John Philip Sousa’s American operetta El Capitan (1896). “Toyland” is a lilting ballad that draws on a centuries-old trope linking pastoral imagery with a moderately paced 6/8 meter (an early imprint is at Tilburg University in the Netherland).

The song is often transformed into a waltz (or a march) — in fact, a selection of waltzes from Babes in Toyland, including “Toyland,” appeared in 1903. In this piano medley, many of the most popular melodies from the show were transformed into waltzes, further endorsing the show’s connection to operetta. The medley’s creator, Bohemian-born Karl L. Hoschna (1876-1911), knew Herbert, for he joined the Victor Herbert Orchestra as oboe soloist in 1896. In addition to the waltz medley, Hoschna also prepared a “non-waltz” medley, or selections, from the show.

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