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Ethelbert Nevin

writer of over 500 works

Ethelbert Nevin

Ethelbert Nevin was born in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, on November 25, 1862. His mother bought the first grand piano ever brought over the Allegheny Mountains, and Ethelbert began playing it at the age of four. He received most of his early basic music education from his father, Robert P. Nevin, the owner of a Pittsburgh newspaper who composed music and wrote poetry as a hobby. Ethelbert showed enough promise as a pianist for his father to take him to Dresden, Germany, for two years of music study under Von Böhme. He wrote a polka at the age of eleven, published his first composition at the age of twelve, and wrote his first song, "Good Night, Beloved," at the age of thirteen.

Nevin entered Western University (now the University of Pittsburgh) in 1879, but left after his freshman year. He subsequently moved to Boston, where he spent two years studying piano with B.J. Lang and composition with Stephen A. Emery (1882-1883). He then moved to Pittsburgh, where he gave piano lessons in order to raise enough money to go to Berlin for further study. In Berlin from 1884 to 1886, he studied piano with Karl Klindworth and theory with Otto Tiersch. He made his professional debut in a piano recital in Berlin in December of 1886. Returning to Boston in 1887, Nevin spent the next few years giving piano lessons and playing at the occasional concert.

Nevin submitted his Sketchbook (containing seven songs, one chorus and five piano works) to ten different publishers before he met Gustave Schirmer in 1888, a young music publisher in Boston, who recognized the commercial potential of his music and published it that same year. Schirmer's Boston Music Company subsequently published his song "Twas April!" (1889), his Three Duets for Piano (1890), and his Water Colors suite (1891), among many, many other compositions. The latter composition included the song "Narcissus," which became so popular among concertgoers that Nevin came to hate playing it.

sheet music for Ethelbert Nevin's 'Narcissus)

In 1892, Nevin moved to Paris, where he taught and coached opera singers. He moved on to Berlin in 1893, and from there to Algiers, Florence, Venice, and then back to Paris. During this time, he composed A Book of Songs (1893), the Nocturne (1893), and other works. He also supplied the music for a pantomime entitled Floriane's Dream (1896).

During his time in Venice, Nevin played at a concert attended by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who insisted that he move to New York City to advance his career. Ill health brought on by alcohol abuse forced Nevin to follow Carnegie's advice in 1897, but he ended up settling in Boston instead of New York City. In 1898, Nevin composed what was to become his most popular song, "The Rosary" (with lyrics by R.C. Rogers). In that same year, he also composed the cycle A Day in Venice for piano. In Cincinnati in 1899, he composed the song cycle Captive Memories, and in 1901 another popular song "Mighty Lak' A Rose" (with lyrics by Frank Lebby Stanton). His last work, a cantata called The Quest, had its orchestration completed by Horatio Parker.

a Victor recording of Nevin's 'The Rosary,' as performed by Fritz Kreisler

Although Ethelbert Nevin wrote well over 500 compositions during his lifetime and their royalties provided him with a good income, he always lived well above his means and was always in debt. That debt, combined with alcohol abuse, led to bouts with depression, and that combination took a serious toll on his health. He died in New Haven, Connecticut (to where he had moved in 1900), on February 17, 1901.

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The Robinson Library >> Musics >> Biography: Composers and Songwriters

This page was last updated on 11/24/2017.