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Timeline: Maria Grever (1885-1951)

Maria Grever's biggest hit was the 1934 song "What A Difference A Day Makes" made popular by singer Dinah Washington.
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Maria Grever's biggest hit was the 1934 song "What A Difference A Day Makes" made popular by singer Dinah Washington.

Maria Grever was the first Mexican, woman composer to earn international attention. You’ve probably heard her melodies and lyrics sung and performed by so many popular musicians from the United States and Latin America. We know her tunes, but very few of us know her name.

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Maria de la Portilla was born in Mexico in 1885. Her mother was Mexican and her father was Spanish. When Maria was six, her father moved the family to his hometown of Seville, Spain. As a child Maria studied piano, violin and voice in France as a student of Claude Debussy and Franz Lehar. She continued her musical education when she returned to Mexico in 1900. Maria married Leo A. Grever, an American oil executive, at the age of 22. She became a U.S. citizen and moved to New York City, which became her home for the rest of her life.

Grever wrote that she wanted to share Mexican music with the world. Her songs focused on finding universal appeal, mixing popular song forms with folk rhythms and Latin American styles.

Maria Grever wrote her first piece “Christmas Carol” at the age of four. This was just the first of many. Grever composed for film and stage. She was a performer, a concert organizer and a sought after voice teacher. However, above everything else, Grever is known for her prolific output of popular songs. She composed over 1,000 of them, writing both the music and the lyrics. These songs found popularity in Latin America, the United States and Europe. Her first big hit was titled “To A Wave” which sold over three million copies.

Grever wrote that she wanted to share Mexican music with the world. Her songs focused on finding universal appeal, mixing popular song forms with folk rhythms and Latin American styles. Maria Grever’s biggest hit was the 1934 song “What A Difference A Day Makes” made popular by singer Dinah Washington.

This success led Grever to tour the United States, Latin America and Europe. She would organize and put on cabarets of her songs, that she would perform herself, along with one-act operas, choral works and instrumental pieces in a wide variety of styles. Music critics were quick to dismiss Grever’s music as “not serious” but they did applaud her “innate gift of spontaneous melody.”

In the late 1930s a sickness threatened to take Grever’s eyesight. In response, she then became an advocate for the blind, organizing concerts for the benefit of the Spanish-American Association for the Blind.

Grever battled illness for decades. She passed away in New York City in 1951 at the age of 57. She is buried in Mexico City. The next year, 1952, Maria Grever was named “Woman of the Americas.”

Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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