Historical Markers
Ethelbert Nevin Historical Marker
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Ethelbert Nevin

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Pa. 65, east side in Edgeworth

Dedication Date:
May 7, 1948

Behind the Marker

Photograph of Victor record with label bearing the title of "The Rosary", by Nevin.
"The Rosary," composed by Ethelbert Nevin and played by violinist Fritz Kreisler,...
The hours I spent with thee, dear heart,
Are as a string of pearls to me;
I count them over, every one apart,
My Rosary, my Rosary.
Each hour a pearl, each pearl a prayer,
To still a heart in absence wrung;
I tell each bead unto the end,
And there a cross is hung.
O memories that bless and burn!
O barren gain and bitter loss!
I kiss each bead, and strive at last to learn.
To kiss the cross, Sweetheart!
To kiss the cross.

  "The Rosary," by Robert Cameron Rogers

Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin sitting at the piano.
Ethelbert Nevin sitting at his piano, circa 1900.
To these words, Pittsburgh's Ethelbert Nevin in 1898 composed one of the most popular and beloved songs of the early twentieth century. First sung in New York on the day that the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, it cemented Nevin's reputation as one of America's most popular songwriters.

For decades to come,  "The Rosary" would sell tens of thousands of copies of sheet music each year, and inspire a novel of the same name, published in 1910. Indeed, it sold so many copies - 2.6 million by the end of 1928 - that for a while it boasted one of largest sheet music sales of all time. The great Irish tenor John McCormack included Nevin songs in his concerts and recorded "The Rosary" for the Victor Company. Fellow concert singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink called it "a perfect song." And, he sang it for German audiences who loved it as much as Americans.

Born in 1863, Ethelbert Olophant Nevin was named after an uncle who had died two months earlier on a Civil War battlefield. As a child, Nevin was drawn to music. After one semester at the University of Western Pennsylvania (today's University of Pittsburgh) he dropped out - to his father's great displeasure - to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Borrowing money from a brother, he studied music in Berlin for two years, but never did develop the technique necessary for an international career. Since a child, however, Nevin had composed songs, which he began to include in concerts after his return to the United States in 1888. As sales of his compositions took off, he increasingly devoted his concert programs to that at which he excelled - interpreting his own music.

Sheet Music for <i>Narcissus,</i> by Ethelbert Nevin, The Boston Music Company.
Sheet Music for "Narcissus," by Ethelbert Nevin, The Boston Music Company, circa...
Nevin submitted his first "Sketchbook" of songs 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. This began an association that would bring them both fame and fortune. In 1891 Schirmer's Boston Music Company published Nevin's "Water Colors" suite, whose last piece, "Narcissus" soon became a song "thrummed and whistled half round the world." Indeed, concertgoers demanded it so much that Nevin came to loathe playing "that mean little Narcissus," a piece he considered trivial.

By mid-1890s royalties from his compositions were providing a handsome income, but never enough to finance his rich lifestyle. To relieve the stress of his near perpetual debt, Nevin turned to alcohol, and in 1893 was hospitalized for "nervous prostration." For the rest of his short life periods of depression would overwhelm the boyish charm and enthusiasm that won him so many friends.
Detail of one stamp from a sheet of Ethelbert Nevin stamps.
Ethelbert Nevin 10 cent stamp, 1940.

After his hospitalization Nevin, now a secret drinker, became more solitary, and moved back to Europe, where he found inspiration for his music in Italy. In Venice he played for steel magnate and fellow Pittsburgher markerAndrew Carnegie, who was so moved by his music that he insisted Nevin move to New York City to advance his career. In the fall of 1897 Nevin did so.

Plagued by poor health and fragile nerves he moved to New Haven in 1900, where he died on February 17th at the age of thirty-seven. Soon after his death, Nevin achieved another hit with publication of "Mighty Lak" a Rose," the second best selling of all his songs.

Today, few people know the music of Ethelbert Nevin. In the 1920s his small, elegantly crafted, sentimental ballads were increasingly derided as the mawkish "sob songs" of an older generation. Forty years after his death, however, millions of Americans could sing his most popular songs. (In this way, Nevin's fate followed that of fellow Pittsburgh songwriter markerStephen Foster, whose life was also cut short by alcoholism.) And listening today, one can still hear the heartfelt emotion, and unashamed sentiment that appealed to millions of Americans in the decades on either side of the dawn of the twentieth century.
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