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  • National Service and Operatic Ambitions: Arthur Nevin’s Musical Activities during World War I
  • Aaron Ziegel (bio)

On 18 October 1917 Arthur Nevin reported for duty at Camp Grant outside of Rockford, Illinois, to begin what was surely one of the most arduous undertakings of his musical career. He had been recruited by the U.S. Army’s Commission on Training Camp Activities to serve as the cantonment’s song leader, a position responsible for instructing nearly forty thousand soldiers-in-training in the art of community singing. Soon thereafter, at a Saturday matinee on 5 January 1918, Maj. Arthur Nevin (wearing his army khakis) conducted the world premiere of his one-act opera A Daughter of the Forest at the Chicago Opera Company. Such simultaneous yet disparate musical endeavors are characteristic of this composer’s career path as he sought both to serve his country during wartime and to capitalize on performance opportunities afforded by the increasingly patriotic bent of the nation’s artistic scene.

This case study of how one composer charted a career during World War I offers a compelling frame through which to examine key facets of [End Page 414] the American experience. Nevin’s story weaves together several crucial issues that characterize musical life at the time, including the cultural hierarchy of competing genres, the professional obstacles confronting composers, and the search for creative outlets that might offer lasting societal and artistic impact. In sum, his diverse activities form a portrait of a musician pursuing a career of recognizably contemporary outlines. During this period, Nevin engaged across a spectrum of style idioms, from Tin Pan Alley popular song and community music to opera. He filled a diverse array of music-related roles, including songwriter, conductor, teacher, essayist and correspondent, concert organizer, logistics manager, and army officer, all while struggling to find success in the medium at the center of his compositional career: American opera. The challenges were not one but many, demanding a multiplicity of aptitudes and an endless supply of novel solutions.

Arthur Nevin (1871–1943) was well equipped for these undertakings. He possessed an impeccable musical pedigree, having trained at the New England Conservatory and studied during the mid-1890s in Berlin under Karl Klindworth and Engelbert Humperdinck. His brother, the late Ethelbert Nevin (1862–1901), remained a household name thanks to the success of “Narcissus” and “The Rosary,” a piano character piece and an art song, respectively. Arthur had tackled seemingly insurmountable musical barriers before. He was, after all, the first American composer to have had an opera produced by a top-tier European company when in 1910 the Berlin Royal Opera, under the baton of Karl Muck, staged Poia, a work based upon a Blackfoot tribal legend.1 After the unwelcome reception of Poia and bruising reviews from the German press, Nevin returned to the United States and began building a reputation for himself within the community music movement. Inspired by nationally recognized leaders like Peter Dykema and Arthur Farwell, Nevin organized at the grassroots level, with Kansas serving as his field of operations.2

In 1915 he joined the faculty of the University of Kansas, where he was responsible for establishing a statewide music program. As a report to the Music Teachers’ National Association explained, “It was his duty to organize, drill, and, if possible, put upon a permanent basis community choruses throughout the State of Kansas.”3 In his first year and a half, Nevin conducted thirty-four community sings, led nearly seventy rehearsals, presented twenty-one lectures about community music, and established twelve new choruses across the state. In total, he founded thirty-five choruses by 1920, the year his position in Kansas ended. His repertoire was ambitious, including Théodore Dubois’s Seven Last Words of Christ and selections from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Bizet’s Carmen. He concurrently sought to maintain his connections to the East Coast centers of the community music movement (and likely escape the perils of an isolated midwestern existence) by guest conducting the community [End Page 415] chorus in New York’s Central Park and directing the MacDowell Colony Chorus each summer.4

Nevin’s work in Kansas was a resounding...


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