I’ve been exploring with some fascination the American composers of the late Romantic era, the ones whose music is rarely heard these days because none of it really goes beyond the stylings of what was going on musically in Europe at the time. Everyone was basically writing European-style music in America, with no real nationalistic material to incorporate as a way of standing out. American music didn’t start to break out until the arrivals of Modernism and jazz, but there was still important and meaningful work being written, and a lot of it is undeserving of its obscurity.
Case in point: the tone poem Hero and Leander by Victor Herbert. Herbert was primarily known as a composer of operettas in the earliest days of the American musical theater (which, again, didn’t really start to catch fire until jazz showed up), and his name is still slightly familiar to audiences because of his work Babes in Toyland, which still shows up in excerpts around Christmas each year (especially the “March of the Toys”).
Hero and Leander is an impressive work, dreamy and Wagnerian, telling the story of two doomed lovers from Greek myth. Guided by a lamp she lit for him, Hero would swim to Leander’s island tower each night. But one day a storm arose, blowing out the lamp and leaving him at sea to drown. When Leander saw Hero’s body floating in the waves, she threw herself into the sea to be with him forever. Herbert composed this half-hour symphonic poem for his own Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and hearing it now I’m struck by its skill even if the musical language is straight out of the Liszt-Wagner-Strauss lineage.
Here is Hero and Leander by Victor Herbert.