The brothers' father, Samuel Borovokunkin, emigrated from Belarus to Warsaw, where he married Pearl Newmark and where the three oldest boys were born. The family then moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, acquiring the shorter surname Berv at Ellis Island. Harry was born in New Jersey, and because of his respiratory problems, on their doctor's advice the family moved to Chisholm, Minnesota in the Mesabi Iron Range for "clean air."
All four boys showed musical talent, and the school music teacher started Henry on violin, Arthur on trumpet, Jack on cello, and Harry on piano. When the teacher told their parents that the boys had outgrown his capabilities, the family moved back to Philadelphia, considered the center for classical music at the time. The boys became successful musicians already in their teens.
Arthur changed to horn at age 14 or 15 and studied with Anton Horner, becoming Horner's assistant in the Philadelphia Orchestra and eventually principal horn himself. Jack and Harry entered Curtis, Jack having played horn for only a few months. The two moved to New York City in 1935 and struggled to find work. When the NBC Symphony was formed, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra horn section played the first season. Jack and Harry were hired to play Wagner tubas; Toscanini liked their playing and asked them to join the orchestra. Arthur was offered the principal horn position, which he accepted as the pay was much higher than in Philadelphia and he did not like playing for Ormandy. The three brothers remained at NBC through Toscanini's tenure and a few years more with its successor, Symphony of the Air.
Arthur and Jack remained on the NBC staff and played on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen under music director Skitch Henderson. All three brothers became studio musicians and played Broadway shows and recording engagements, including the sound track for the films done in the new technique "Cinerama" with music by composer Dmitri Tiomkin, and for the TV series Victory at Sea, with a soundtrack by Richard Rogers. The original Star Trek TV theme also featured Arthur and Harry, and Harry played with Frank Sinatra. Apparently the Bervs had many, if not most, of the freelance horn gigs in the 1950s and 1960s, even into the early 1970s. They were usually hired as a threesome. They were featured on the CBS TV program Omnibus in a horn demonstration, and in another Omnibus episode with Leonard Bernstein discussing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that included a shot of Arthur standing on a huge score on the floor and playing the introductory motive.
Arthur taught at Manhattan, Harry at Juilliard, and Jack at Yale. Harry also taught in Montreal, taking the train there once a week, and commuted to Nashville, where he played in recording sessions. Jack founded a youth orchestra on Long Island and participated in summer music festivals.
The Conn Corporation asked the brothers in 1938 to advise in designing a horn. Harry and Jack went to Elkhart, Indiana with a silver Kruspe and helped with the development of the 8D. They were offered either a royalty on every Conn that was sold, or two new horns. They each took two horns, later acknowledging that the decision had been a mistake.
Aside from the standard long tones, scales, and traditional etudes (Kopprasch, Kling, Gallay, Bellolli, Maxime Alphonse), the brothers did not use the strenuous exercises so prevalent later. Whatever repertoire they were playing on a concert, they would find an etude or musical passage that would reinforce the relevant techniques. Even their practice sessions were expressive and musical, rather than concentrating on lip strength and technique. They advocated memorizing excerpts, especially those with tricky transpositions.
Arthur spoke of how Jack was "the best second horn player" he ever worked with. For a player to have Jack's security, ability, and desire to listen and blend, as well as to be supportive in the best sense, was of immense help to the principal player. Jack's ability to play interval studies and passages, in particular second horn duet parts with rapid intervals, was thrilling. Jack felt that he did not have the endurance to practice and then play rehearsals and concerts, so when he was an active performer he did not practice much. Arthur and Harry were different from Jack, as Arthur used to get up at 5 a.m. daily to play long tones and warm up and Harry practiced all the time.
What made these brothers special was not just their dominance in the New York horn world, but a combination of accuracy, technique, sound (the "Berv" sound), musicality, and an ability to blend and help each other as needed. The sound was not "big" or "booming," words often used today to refer to the New York 8D tone. On the contrary, it was of a medium size but also complex with all the harmonics of the wide bore Conn and a flexibility of sound, which varied according to the key and the music.
Arthur participated in the first horn workshop in Tallahassee and was enthusiastic about the proposal to form a horn society.
Richard Chenoweth's two-part series on the Berv brothers, from which this material was taken, appeared in the May 2012 and May 2013 issues of The Horn Call.