Oct. 16 marks a century since the death, at age 29, of pianist and composer Felix Arndt, one of scores of millions felled by the 1918 influenza pandemic. The illness robbed Arndt of the chance to enjoy the long afterlife of his best-known creation: “Nola,” a “Silhouette for the Piano” written in 1915 that became one of Tin Pan Alley’s most enduring legacies.
Born in New York in 1889, Arndt taught himself piano as a child, then studied with Carl Lachmund, a Missouri-born pianist who became a favorite student of Franz Liszt. In his early career, Arndt arranged and composed material for vaudeville stars while also manning the organ bench at Trinity Church on Wall Street. He polished his pianistic craft as a song-plugger, performing publishers’ newest offerings for performers and buyers who could make them hits. In 1912, he began recording for Victor Records; soon after, he joined the staff of Aeolian Hall, recording hundreds of Duo-Art piano rolls, among the most prestigious brands of the day.
Arndt’s own published compositions were few, but they helped spark a novelty ragtime fad of the 1910s and 20s. He mined his classical training for two “Desecration Rags,” the first syncopating well-known classical themes from Dvorak to Liszt to Chopin, the second tackling a sheaf of operatic excerpts. Both are minor classics of the novelty rag genre; neither attained the empyrean heights of “Nola,” written to mark Arndt’s engagement to Nola Locke, a classically trained singer. Its lilting triplets and dazzling, intricate cross-handed runs established a template for novelty ragtime composers.
The sheet music became a perennial best-seller, a staple of both amateurs and professionals. Bandleader Vincent Lopez made “Nola” the theme of his radio show, which maintained its currency through the 30s; guitarist Les Paul recorded the song in 1950. As late as 1959, in the wake of a rendition released by singer Billy Williams, the publisher reported advance orders of another 68,000 copies. The original version remains in print.
In October 1918, Arndt caught a cold, taxing his immune system enough for the influenza virus to take hold; he died a week later. His obituary in “Musical America” lamented the sudden loss of a generous colleague, “full of the deepest altruism.” Among the musicians Arndt helped was George Gershwin, encouraging the younger songwriter and getting him a job cutting rolls for Aeolian. Years later, George and his brother Ira paid wry tribute in their satirical 1933 musical “Let ’Em Eat Cake,” including Arndt’s signature piece in a list of societal ills enumerated by an absurdly zealous political agitator. “Down with Balzac, down with Zola,” he harangues the crowd. “Down with pianists who play ‘Nola.’”