Nevin was born on November 25, 1862, at Vineacre, on the banks of the Ohio River, in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania. There he spent the first sixteen years of his life, and received all his schooling, most of it from his father, Robert Peebles Nevin, editor and proprietor of a Pittsburgh newspaper, and a contributor to many magazines. (It is interesting to note that Robert Nevin also composed several campaign songs, among them the popular "Our Nominee," used in the day of James K. Polk's candidacy). Nevin's mother, Elizabeth Duncan Oliphant, was a pianist. The first grand piano ever taken across the Allegheny Mountains was carted over for Nevin's mother. Other members of the Nevin family showed musical inclinations as well; Nevin's younger brother, Arthur, also achieved some renown as a composer, as did his cousins George and Gordon Balch Nevin.
From a young age, Nevin was musically inclined. He began playing the piano by the age of four, although he needed cushions piled on the pedals to enable him to reach them. Nevin's father provided for his son both vocal and instrumental instruction. He also took him abroad for two years of travel and music study in Dresden under Von Böhme. In 1878, he attended Western University, now known as the University of Pittsburgh, but left at the end of his freshman year in 1879. Later he studied the piano for two years at Boston, under Benjamin Johnson Lang, and composition under Stephen A. Emery.
After two years studying in Boston, in 1882 Nevin moved back to Pittsburgh, where he gave lessons, and saved money enough to take him to Berlin. There he spent the years 1884, 1885, and 1886, placing himself in the hands of Karl Klindworth. Of him Nevin says: "To Herr Klindworth I owe everything that has come to me in my musical life. He was a devoted teacher, and his patience was tireless. His endeavor was not only to develop the student from a musical standpoint, but to enlarge his soul in every way. To do this, he tried to teach one to appreciate and to feel the influence of such great minds of literature as Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare. He used to insist that a man does not become a musician by practising so many hours a day at the piano, but by absorbing an influence from all the arts and all the interests of life, from architecture, painting, and even politics."
In 1885, Hans von Bülow incorporated the best four pupils of his friend, Klindworth, into an artist class, which he drilled personally. Nevin was one of the honored four, and appeared at the unique public Zuhören of that year, devoted exclusively to the works of Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, and Joachim Raff. Among the forty or fifty studious listeners at these recitals, Frau Cosima Wagner, the violinist Joseph Joachim, and many other celebrities were frequently present.
Nevin returned to America in 1887, and took up his residence in Boston, where he taught and played at occasional concerts.
In 1892 he went to Paris, where he taught singing, and he coached many American and French artists for the operatic stage. In 1893 he moved on to Berlin, where he worked so hard at composition that his health collapsed, and he spent a year in Algiers. The early months of 1895 he spent in concert tours through this country. As Klindworth said of him, "he has a touch that brings tears," and it is in interpretation rather than in bravura that he excels.
Seeking solitude and the right atmosphere for composition, he went to live in Florence, where he composed his suite May in Tuscany (Op. 21). After a year in Venice Nevin made Paris his home for a year, then returned to America, where he remained until his death.
His best-remembered compositions are the piano piece Narcissus from Water Scenes and the songs "The Rosary" and "Mighty Lak' a Rose" (lyrics of the latter by Frank Lebby Stanton).
Nevin was married to Anne Paul Nevin with whom he had two children.
Despite being a prominent composer, Nevin had recurring debt towards the end of his life. This situation plagued Nevin with ongoing depression, accompanied by heavy drinking. He overworked himself at times, steadily deteriorating his health. On the night of February 15, 1901, while in New Haven, Connecticut, Nevin had attended a recital given by Harold Bauer. After returning home, however, his health worsened. He had shown symptoms of numbness in his hands, altering his ability to play the piano. On the morning of February 17, he was confined to his bed as his health was becoming more unpredictable. He died later that day on February 17, 1901 in New Haven, Connecticut.
Nevin was commemorated by being pictured on a 1940 ten cent U.S. postage stamp, one of the "Famous Americans" series.
The University of Pittsburgh Ethelbert Nevin collection archives consist of the collection of manuscripts, recordings, memorabilia, and original hand-written scores that document his life, work and influence. The archives contains correspondence, commissioned commercial musical compositions, scores, recordings.Rupert Hughes, Contemporary American Composers, Boston, 1900.
Vance Thompson, The Life of Ethelbert Nevin, Boston, 1913.
John Tasker Howard, Ethelbert Nevin, New York, 1935.
Ngaio Marsh, Overture to Death, 1939, mentions a "Venetian Suite" by Nevin