Victor Herbert’s First Performance
in the New World
This story takes us well back into the last century – must’ve been ’73 or ’74 – and it’s true. I was there.
It took place in the basement of the United Church of Warner, New Hampshire on a Sunday morning around 11:45 at Fellowship Hour, also known as Coffee Time. Fred Courser, Jr. was in his usual seat backed up against the south wall, talking tools with John Crieger. Phil Lord was there and Mary, of course, was serving.
Having played a flute solo during the service, I was standing northwest near the choir closet receiving congratulations, which are forthcoming regardless of how poor the performance may have been. This is an office which can only be discharged in a standing position.
An old woman approached, bent over her cane. She crooked her neck to look up at me and said, “Do you know what an obbligatist is?” I began to say that I did know that an obbligato is an accompaniment in the low voice, but it wasn’t necessary as she had gone right on with: “An obbligatist is one who accompanies a contralto on the viola.”
I said “well” slowly to give myself time to think of an appropriate reply, but I needn’t have worried as she continued with: “I am a trained obbligatist. I had to be because my mother was a contralto.”
As I slowly sank to one knee in order to relieve each of us of the weight of our respective heads, she told me the story of the one performance that inspired her entire musical life.
“I was raised in New York City,” she said, “and when I was just a girl and only beginning to learn the viola, my mother was, on one day before an extravagant concert, in crisis as her usual violist was ill. Mother called her agent in desperation. She received a call back just hours before the concert. Her agent reported that he’d done his best, but could only provide an unknown man who had walked into his office just that afternoon ‘right off the boat’ – that would have been the ferry from Ellis Island. ‘He says he can do anything,’ her agent reported. ‘I’ve explained the job and it appears that if you can find him a viola, he will play your obbligati.’ ”
So mother brought daughter to the concert hall where she – this old woman before whom I knelt – reluctantly loaned her viola to a hungry looking man named Victor Herbert, dressed in a threadbare and antiquated tuxedo. He played so beautifully, so sensitively and in such perfect sympathy with her mother’s singing, that that contralto was moved to sing more freely and honestly than ever before. This resulted in the finest concert that she was ever to give.
I know this because this old obbligatist ended her story with the words: “She never could get him again.”