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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 9 (December 1899):  6-7.

Some Pittsburgh Composers.

THE annual Carnegie exhibit of paintings has become such a feature in American art that it has turned the attention of all painters and all picture-loving people towards Pittsburgh. The enlarged Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has under Victor Herbert's direction attained such a degree of excellence that some of the highest orchestral talent in America is to be found in the city. But the musical history of Pittsburgh began long before the symphony orchestra was ever dreamed of, before the Carnegie millions which built the great music hall were dug out of the earth;—began away back in old Stephen C. Foster's time, when people all over the world were singing the plaintive negro melodies that came from the banks of the Alleghenies.

A strangely romantic figure he is to look back upon, that Stephen C. Foster, born in Pittsburgh away back in the twenties when Pennsylvania was very far west indeed—born into a country without music, and with very indifferent standards of taste. It would seem that nature intended him to be a national singer, for he was born on the fourth day of July, 1828. When Anton Dvorak wrote his "Symphony from the New World," and sought for characteristic American melodies he was forced to take the plaintive minor folk songs of the southern negroes; so Foster, probably without thinking much about it, found his richest field in negro melodies. He was never a profound musician, and was backward and indolent in the study of harmony. He was a man simple in taste, who never tried to be greater than he was, and was never guilty of over-reaching himself. Most of his studying he did at campmeetings, absorbing all the peculiarities of negro music. His forte lay in those simple songs which touch the heart, and no man ever touched the heart more truly.

Personally, he was a quiet, sensitive man, with an habitually gentle expression, a lofty forehead and gentle brown eyes. Although he had so little to guide him, and so little helpful critical appreciation, he remained undistracted by adulation and unspoiled by success. He knew what he could do well, and he confined himself to that. He wrote the words for most of his songs, the first good negro dialect verse ever written. His negro melodies are entirely free from vulgarity and the flavor of burnt cork. They are sincere, exquisite, unique. Perhaps it was because he spoke only what his heart uttered that his voice always rang so true.

His first song, published when he was seventeen, then a shipping clerk in Louisville, Kentucky, was "Open thy Lattice to Me, Love," and is still a popular concert number. Then followed "Uncle Ned," "O Susannah," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground," and "Ole Black Joe." "The Swanee River" was first sold to Christy's minstrels for five hundred dollars, but as over half a million copies were soon sold the publishers paid the author several thousand dollars in royalties. The song found an echo around the world. Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson sang it in all the capitals of Europe, and it brought tears to the eyes of men of every tongue. Then came "My Nelly was a Lady" and "Nancy Till."

When Foster tried more serious music it was with effect, as his beautiful serenade for a quartette, "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," bears witness. His story was the old story of the grasshopper who sang all the summer and thought not of the winter. His vogue passed. The world concerned itself with newer matters; his sales fell off, and he died in New York in 1864 a penniless wanderer. But who shall say that it was not better to have sung for a summer than, like the exemplary ant, to have grubbed in the earth a lifetime? The ants die and are forgotten, and other creeping black things take their place, but in our hearts the singers are immortally young.

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Photograph of Ethelbert Nevin.ETHELBERT NEVIN.

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 sleighbells 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.

Ethelbert Nevin was born at Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, a village some fifteen miles down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, in 1862. He came by his musical taste naturally enough. His father is a composer and poet, and the first grand piano that was ever shipped west of the Alleghenies was carted over the mountains for his mother, then Miss Elizabeth Olaphant, of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Music came to the boy as early as speech; indeed, it was his proper language—the one in which he was destined to be master. When he was eleven years old he published a polka with the following couplet on the title page:

"By Bertie Nevin, Aged eleven."

The rhyme was sung at him at school until he was very sick of it. When he was but thirteen he wrote his serenade, "Good-night, Good-night. Beloved," and when he was fifteen it was being sung all over the world. After three months of study under Carl von Bohme in Berlin his father insisted on his returning to America, and placed him in the Western University of Pennsylvania, where he spent two years in incongenial study, writing music in the intervals of his college work. When he was seventeen he went to Boston to study under B. J. Lang, and later to Europe.

From the first his career has been one of meteoric success. Since he first flashed upon the musical horizon he has been one of the most conspicuous figures there. For a man of thirty-seven he has a wonderful past behind him, and in all probability, a still more wonderful future before. He was one of the first men to give American music a high place in the art of the world. His most popular instrumental compositions are probably the suite called "Water Scenes," which includes "Narcissus," "The Water Nymph," "Ophelia," and "The Dragon Fly," and his charming pastoral suite, "In Arcady," though his suite, "May in Tuscany," is his most profound composition. It is as a song writer, however, that he is best known, and "O That We Two Were Maying, "'Twas April," "One Spring Morning," "The Merry, Merry Lark" and "The Rosary" will live when the armour plate made at Homestead is eaten away with rust. For it is possible for a lyric to outlive a battle-ship and a nation's songs to survive its navy.

Much of Mr. Nevin's life has been spent abroad, in Paris, Berlin, Florence and Venice, but two years ago he returned to Pittsburgh and fitted up a music room at the old Nevin homestead at Edgeworth, where he now works. It was there that his suite, "A Day in Venice," that is now rivaling "Narcissus" in popularity, was written. His productive energy is exhaustless, and in the last ten years he has published over five hundred compositions.

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A French wit once said that it was because Napoleon could rule the world that not one of his brothers was able to govern a province. This theory, however, does not always hold true, for of the three Bronte sisters, all so distinguished in letters, it has never yet been quite decided which possessed the highest talent. And just as there was a Charlotte Bronte faction and an Emily Bronte faction, so there are followers of E. Nevin and followers of A. Nevin.

Photograph of Arthur Nevin.ARTHUR NEVIN.

Arthur Nevin, although eleven years his brother's junior, has already made for himself a reputation which reaches across the sea. He was born at Edgeworth in 1871, and educated at the Sewickley academy and the Western University of Pennsylvania. When he was a mere boy he attained great proficiency on the 'cello and desired to enter upon a musical career. His father naturally thought that one musician in the family was enough, but the young man went to Boston and studied there three years, supporting himself by playing his instrument, the 'cello, while he worked at contrepointe and harmony. Then he went to Germany, where his orchestral suite, "Lorna Doone," was brought out by Dr. Muck several years ago. After his return to America this suite, the most widely known of his orchestral music, was played by McDowell in New York and by Victor Herbert's orchestra in Pittsburgh. It is a suite in four movements: I. "Daybreak." II. "The Stream." III. "Love Song." IV. "The Ride of the Doones." It is a masterly piece of orchestration and abounds in vivid tonal picturing. His music is so entirely his own, so individual in matter and manner, so full of color and feeling, that he has already proven that he is following a high calling of his own, and not his brother's example. Stevenson said: "He who loves the labor of any art, him have the gods called;" and Arthur Nevin has proven that he loves that labor passing well. The whole spirit of his work is essentially different from his brother's but the latitude of art is wide, and to its attitude there is no end at all.

Among Arthur Nevin's songs, "Were I a Star" and "A Red, Red Rose" take a high rank among the most noble of lyrics. The young composer's first opera was brought out in Sewickley last winter. It's title, "The Economites," at once suggests that its theme was the legendary history of the society that built the quaint old town down the Ohio river. Mr. Nevin is at present in New York, where he has a studio and where he will this winter write another opera with De Koven's famous librettist, Harry B. Smith, who wrote the libretto for "Robin Hood." Within a few weeks he will stage a one-act opera he has just completed, "The Maid in the Moon," for Spencer Trask. It is to be sung by amateurs at Trask's Saratoga palace, Vaddo.

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High is the rank among Pittsburgh's composers is Mr. Ad M. Foerster, a writer of highly serious compositions. Mr. Foerster was born in Pittsburgh in 1854. He first entered upon a commercial career, but after three years abandoned it, and in 1875 went abroad to study music. After his return to America he was at first connected with the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Conservatory of Music, but ultimately returned to his native city. His two concert etudes, "Exultation" and '' Lamentation," are probably his most meritorious and ambitious works.

One of his finest efforts is his "Prelude" to Goethe's "Faust," which shared the Art Society's prize with Fidelis Zitterbart's "Richard III." at the society's reception at Carnegie hall on December twenty-seventh last. It begins with a sombre, gloomy strain, depicting "Faust" in his studio in deep meditation. Then the music changes to a lighter mood, illustrating the scholar's less gloomy views of life. Following comes the motif of "Marguerite"—a sweet, peaceful melody. Immediately after this comes the "Mephistopheles" passages in characteristic strain. Then there is the love motive between "Faust" and "Marguerite"—a composition of surpassing sweetness.

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Photograph of Fidelis Zitterbart.FIDELIS ZITTERBART.

Prof. Fidelis Zitterbart is a well-known composer and teacher of the violin. He was born on the grimy South Side fifty-four years ago. His father was orchestra leader in the old Drury Lane theater, which once stood on Fifth avenue, near Wood street. When young Zitterbart was sixteen he went to Germany, and has the distinction of having studied under the best masters. Ten years of his life were spent in New York. He has played with Thomas' orchestra, and was connected with the New York Philharmonic society. He has written a number of etudes and many overtures. Several years ago he wrote an opera, "Ini," which was performed in this city. He has also written an operetta, "Hans and Gretel," with libretto by William Heeren, the Penn avenue wholesale jeweler.

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Photograph of Leo Oehmler.LEO OEHMLER.

Leo Oehmler, the prominent violin soloist, was born in Allegheny in 1867. He received his musical education at the Royal Conservatory of Soudershausen, Germany, where he ranked as first pupil in harmony, and from which he graduated with distinction. He was wonderfully proficient in the violin and played in Richard Strauss' orchestra in Vienna. His piano piece for four hands, "The Song of the Reaper," won the first prize of the Pittsburgh Art society in 1873. Mr. Oehmler regards his "Forest Voices" as his best work. It is a beautiful number for mixed voices, string orchestra and harp accompaniment.

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Photograph of Simeon Bissell.SIMEON BISSELL.

Prof. Simeon Bissell, of the Pittsburgh College of Music, has written much music of value. Geneva Johnstone Bishop and Emma Nevada are partial to his songs, and Mme. Emma de Konchin sang his charming "Spring Song" in the Grand Opera house at St. Petersburg.

Photograph of Prof. Guenther.PROF. GUENTHER.

Of good band masters Pittsburgh has had no lack, Mr. John Duss and Prof. Guenther both having written remarkably spirited compositions for their respective bands.