Nevin was born in 1862, at Vineacre, on the banks of the Ohio, a few miles from Pittsburgh. There he spent the first sixteen years of his life, and received all his schooling, most of it from his father, Robert P. Nevin, editor and proprietor of a Pittsburgh newspaper, and a contributor to many magazines. It is interesting to note that he also composed several campaign songs, among them the popular "Our Nominee," used in the day of James K. Polk's candidacy. 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 his earliest infancy Nevin was musically inclined, and was playing the piano at the age of four. Cushions were piled on the pedals to enable him to reach them. Nevin's father provided for his son both vocal and instrumental instruction, even taking him abroad for two years of travel and music study in Dresden under Von Böhme. Later he studied the piano for two years at Boston, under B.J. Lang, and composition under Stephen A. Emery.
At the end of two years he went 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."
The effect of such broad training, enjoyed rarely enough by music students, is very evident in Nevin's compositions. They are never narrow or provincial. They are the outpourings of a soul that is not only intense in its activities, but is refined and cultivated in its expressions. This effect is seen, too, in the poems Nevin chooses to set to music; they are almost without exception verses of literary finish and value. His cosmopolitanism is also remarkable, his songs in French, German, and Italian having no trace of Yankee accent and a great fidelity to their several races.
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 Brahms, Liszt, and Raff. Among the forty or fifty studious listeners at these recitals, Frau Cosima Wagner, the violinist 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.
Nevin was married to Anne Paul Nevin. They had two children. He died in New Haven, Connecticut.
His least-forgotten compositions are the piano piece "Narcissus" from Water Scenes and the songs "The Rosary" and "Mighty Lak' a Rose". Nevin was pictured on a 1940 ten cent U.S. postage stamp.
Vance Thompson, The Life of Ethelbert Nevin, Boston, 1913.
John Tasker Howard, Ethelbert Nevin, New York, 1935.