Composer and pianist Ethelbert Nevin was a gifted concert performer who composed classical pieces for orchestra and piano and popular songs. His music infused with delightfully infectious melodies was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over his career Ethelbert Nevin published over five hundred compositions. He is best known for his popular songs "Mighty Lak A Rose", "The Rosary", "Narcissus", "May in Tuscany", "A Day in Venice" and "Good Night, Beloved". Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Mario Lanza, Paul Robeson, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Bing Crosby, Doris Day. Liberace, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Mahalia Jackson and many other performers have recorded his music. His most popular song, "The Rosary" with lyrics by R.C. Rogers, sold 2.6 million copies by 1928 making it one of the all time sheet music best sellers. He toured the U.S. and Europe performing his compositions. Ethelbert Nevin was honored with a U.S. stamp in 1940 and was inducted into the Song Writer’s Hall of Fame.
Pittsburgh Piano Prodigy
Ehtelbert Woodbridge Nevin was born Novermber 25, 1862 on his father's Vinacre homestead in Edgeworth near Sewickly on the Ohio River. He spent the first fifteen years of his life in the Pittsburgh area. Nevin was born two years before the death of Stephen Foster and took up Foster's legacy as a leading composer of American music. Ethelbert , called Bertie by his family, was the fifth of eight children. His brother Arthur also grew up to become an opera composer and music educator. His father, Robert P. Nevin, was the editor and owner of two Pittsburgh newspapers: the Evening Reader and the Pittsburgh Times.
The Nevin family pursued music as a passion. Nevin's mother Elizabeth, a pianist, bought the first grand piano ever brought over the Allegheny Mountains. His father composed and published music as a hobby. A child prodigy Ethelbert began playing the piano on his own at the age of four. He learned piano initially from his parents and began formal training in . piano and voice at age eight. His first piano lessons were from Von der Heide at the Williams Conservatory in Pittsburgh. He began studying piano with William Guenther at age ten. Bertie gave his first public performance at age 11.Bertie Nevin began writing music at age eleven. He wrote his first composition , the "Lialian Polka", for his sister . At age 13 he wrote the song "Good Night, Beloved". He wrote his song "O! Tat We Two Were Maying" at age 15.
Ethelbert went abroad with his parents at age 15 for two years. He studied piano in Dresden three times a week under Von Böhme. At age 16 he lived in Rome with his parents and sang in a boys choir directed by his uncle.
Music EducationIn 1878 at age 18 Nevin attended Western University (now the University of Pittsburgh). Bert gave several recitals during his during his time at the university. Wanting to study music he dropped out of the the university at the end of his freshman year in 1879. His father wanted him to be a businessman. Obeying his father Bert took a job as clerk with the Pennsylvania Railway company. After a few months he told his father that he'd rather be a poor musician than an unhappy businessman. His father gave in a letting him quit his clerk job to study and write write music at home in the winter of 1880.
In the Fall of 1881 Bert moved to Boston to study piano with B.J. Lang ( a student of Listz) and composition with Stephen A. Emery. Ethelbert returned to Pittsburgh in 1883 taking a job in a print shop. He played organ at the Sewickly Presbyterian Church and taught music classes and piano lessons on Sixth Street in downtown Pittsburgh. He also occasionally played organ at St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal Church in Oakmont where he met his future wife Anne Paul.
Using his savings and money borrowed from his brother he spent the years of 1884 through 1886 in Berlin studying with Karl Klindwort. Klindwort urged Niven to focus on being a composer and a concert performer. Klindworth said of Nevin's piano performances, "he has a touch that brings tears and it is in interpretation rather than in bravura that he excels."
Completing his piano studies with Klindworth and composition studies Bial Nevin Ethelbert Nevin returned to America in November of 1886. He turned down Klindwort's offer to give him a professional debut in Berlin.
Nevin made his professional debut in a piano recital in Pittsburgh on December 10, 1886. He performed works by Bach, Schuman, Brassin, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt and his own composition "Legend of the Spinner" He earned glowing reviews in the Pittsburgh newspapers
"Mr Nevin may unhesitatingly be pronounced a fully equiped and masterful performer,,,That his genius is of a high order was the universal verdict of the many competent judges by who he was heard last evening." -The Pittsburgh Times
"The striking characteristics of his performance are intense poetic feeling exquisite refinement in shadowing and marvelous delicacy of touch" -Commercial Gazette
Boston Composition, Concert and Teaching Career
Nevin returned to Boston in 1887 where he taught music, played concerts, and focused on composing. Boston was then considered the leading American city for classical music. Ethelbert made his first professional appearance in March of 1887 in Boston at Chickering Hall performing the Liszt E flat minor with an orchestra conducted by his former instructor Mr. Lang. He performed five of his compositions in a recital on March 11, 1887 in Boston. Earning great reviews in the Boston newspapers he became a success in the Boston music scene. "That he is already an artist of great and rare gifts was plainly manifest." -The Evening Transcript
Nevin returned to Pittsburgh in January of 1888 to marry Anne Paul. He and Anne set up household in Boston where they had two children: Paul and Dorothy.
Gustave Schirmer of Boston published Nevin's "Sketchbook" of songs 1888 when he was 26 year old. Schimer's paid him a 50 cent royalty on every copy. It sold 1,100 copies in its first year of publication. Nevin toured giving concert performances of his compositions in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other Northeastern cities. Schirmer's published Nevin's "Water Colors" suite in 1891 that included the piece "Narcissus" that became an international hit. .
Wanting to study more and to advance his music career Bertie Nevin and his young family sailed for Europe on May 28, 1891. He spent a month in Berlin before setting up an eight month residence in Paris where he taught master classes, performed, and composed. He continued his travels in 1982 working in Berlin for eight months. He traveled to Algiers in 1994 and worked in Rome, Florence, and Venice from 1885 to 1897. He lived for a year on the Grand Canal in Venice.
On the urging of Andrew Carnegie he returned to the U.S in October of 1897 moving to New York City. He opened a music studio in Carnegie Hall to continue his composition work. Royalties from his compositions provided Nevin with a steady income by the mid 1890s.
Nevin's biggest selling song "The Rosary" was premiered by baritone Francis Rogers at a Nevin concert at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 23, 1898.
At age 35 in 1898 Nevin and his wife and children returned Edgeworth to spend the summer with his ailing mother. He rented a 5 room cottage that he called the "Queen Anne Lodge" near his family's Vinacre estate. There he composed his suite "A Day in Venice." On his visits to Edgeworth Burt met and become friends with Pulitzer prize winning writer Willa Cather who was a the music reporter for his father's newspaper the Pittsburgh Leader. Nevin composed the song La Lune Blanche for Willa.
The Ethelbert Nevin family moved to New Haven Connecticut in the October of 1900. Ehtelbert died of a stroke at his home in New Haven on Feb. 17, 1901 at age 38. He was buried in Sewickly but his wife had his body moved to Maine in 1933.
Copyrights and Tributes
After Ethelbert Nevin's death his wife Anne instrumental in the writing of the music copyright laws that we signed by president Theordore Roosevelt. She became an active member of American Society of Composers and Arrangers who fought to obtain royalties for composers.
Nevin was remember in several artistic works after his death including a Broadway play by Edward E. Rose, and a silent movie by Jerome Storm. He inspired his friend Willa Cather's short stories "Uncle Valentine" and "A Death in the Desert".
Willa Cather Tribute
“Pittsburgh has the honor of having given to the world the most eminent of all American composers, Ethelbert Nevin. His name is known wherever music is known at all, though, as is often an artist's fate, he is most often identified with one of his more trivial compositions, "Narcissus." I first heard that graceful, tantalizing melody played as an encore at one of the Sunday night concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I have heard it played by string bands on the steamers that ply back and forth over the great lakes; I have heard it played on an organ at a school entertainment in a sod school-house in Western Kansas, and once I heard it performed on sleigh bells in a variety theater in Denver. You can hear it almost any night in London, in Paris, in Cairo, and a friend of mine once heard it on a mouth harp in a snow-banked cabin in the Klondike, played by a miner whose frozen feet were done up in bandages.” – Willa Cather - The Home Monthly, 9 (December 1899)