April 14, 1857, Sparta, Wisconsin.
November 12, 1944, Oxford, Ohio.
Oxford Cemetery, Oxford, Ohio.
Kelley was of New England stock, his ancestors having come to America from England before 1650. His mother was from a musical family, and herself was skilled in music; she became his first teacher. Kelley’s own college career was interrupted by bouts of poor health. He was a talented artist and writer, but he decided to devote his life to music after a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Consequently, he traveled to Chicago, Illinois, at age 17, there to study with Clarence Eddy and Napoleon Ledochowski. Two years later he went to Stuttgart, Germany, where he studied organ, piano, and composition. His teachers there were Frederich Finck, Wilhelm Krüger, Wilhelm Speidel, and Max Seifriz. His friendship with Edward MacDowell began in Stuttgart, and later Kelley worked at the MacDowell Colony.
Kelley graduated from the conservatory in Stuttgart in 1880, and performed around Europe for a time with a number of orchestras. Upon his return to the United States, he went to San Francisco, California, where he worked as a church organist and was a music critic for the San Francisco Examiner. He also became active as a composer, writing incidental music for a production of Macbeth that garnered him much attention. An interest in theater drew him to New York City in 1886, and there he married Jessie Gregg in 1891. The two then returned to California for four more years, during which time Kelley composed, conducted, lectured, and taught. In 1896 the couple returned to New York, where Edgar was hired to conduct an operetta company. He also taught, at the New York College of Music and New York University. In 1901, he replaced Horatio Parker for a year at Yale University when the latter went on sabbatical. The following year the Kelleys moved to Berlin, Germany, and for eight years they lived and worked in Europe, lecturing, teaching, conducting, and performing in an attempt to expand European interest in American music. Kelley, though, wished to spend more time composing, and in 1910 took a post at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, where he would remain until his death.
Kelley and his wife divided their time between the Western College and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music; Kelley taught composition there, and later served as dean of the Department of Composition and Orchestration. Among his pupils was C. Hugo Grimm, who would himself later lead the department. His wife lectured there as well. The couple retired in 1934, but continued to travel while maintaining a house in Oxford.