MacDowell, Edward Alexander



There has been much discussion as to whether or not America has a national music, but it is generally agreed that if such be the case, Edward Alexander MacDowell is its most gifted and most characteristically national representative. Educated in French and German Conservatories and surrounded during the formative years of his life by foreign models and musicians, MacDowell so thoroughly assimilated the best that was presented to him that he can never be accused of having been unduly influenced by methods and characteristics of other countries, and even from the first he was singularly free from that unconscious imitation into which so many young composers fall. His music is as individual as the music of Chopin or Beethoven, but it will be for the future to prove how much of this individuality is national and how much personal. Thus far we can only accord him first place as an American composer. Edward Alexander MacDowell was born in New York City, Dec. 18, 1861. In religion his grandparents were Quakers, and from them we may trace an admirable earnestness and simplicity along with the strong Celtic strain which expressed itself in his fine understanding of and sensitiveness to Nature and the moods inspired by her. When MacDowell was about eight years old he began taking piano lessons from Mr. Juan Buitrago. His next teacher was Paul Desvernine, with whom he studied until he was about fourteen, receiving lessons also from the noted Venezuelan pianist, Mme. Teresa Carreno. In April, 1876, he went to Paris with his mother and entered the Conservatory to study theory and composition under Savard, and piano under Marmontel. About this time his French teacher showed a sketch he had made to an instructor at the cole des Beaux Arts, who saw so much promise in it that he agreed to give the young man three years of free instruction and to arrange for his support during that time. For a while MacDowell hesitated between the two arts, but finally decided to continue in the path he had chosen.


At this time he heard of Carl Heymann, the pianist, who taught at the Frankfort Conservatory, and being dissatisfied at Paris, at the invitation of friends he went to Wiesbaden, met Heymann, and was most favorably impressed with him. He remained in Wiesbaden studying composition and theory with Louis Ehlert, and in the autumn of 1879 entered Frankfort Conservatory. Here he found what he wanted. Heymann proved to be all he had expected as a piano teacher, and in Raff, with whom he studied composition, he found a most understanding and appreciative master. If MacDowell ever showed the influence of any one man it is that of Raff, and it is seen in the Suite No. 1 for orchestra, of which he has named the four movements as follows: In a Haunted Forest, Summer Idyll, The Shepherdess' Song, Forest Spirits, with a supplement, entitled In October. MacDowell now went to the Darmstadt Conservatory to teach the piano, but soon discovered that no progress was to be made there and returned to Frankfort, where he gave private lessons and devoted much time to composition. He visited Liszt at Weimar, and the veteran musician, recognizing his ability, invited him to play his first piano suite at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musik-Verein held at Zurich in July, 1882. In Frankfort he met his wife, Marion Nevins, of New York, whom Raff had sent to MacDowell for lessons, because she spoke little German. They were married in 1884 and the following year removed to Wiesbaden, where for about two years they lived a delightfully retired life. To this period belong the three songs, Mein Liebchen, Du Liebst mich nicht, and Oben, wo die Sterne glühen, which comprise Op. 2; Nachtlied and Das Rosenband, included in Op. 12; a prelude and fugue; the second piano suite; the first piano concerto; the Serenade; two Fantasiestücke; Erzahlung; Hexantanz; Barcarolle and Humoresque, Op. 18; the Wald-Idyllen; Drei Poesin and Mondbilder for four hands; also the two tone-poems for orchestra, entitled Hamlet and Ophelia, and dedicated to Sir Henry Irving.


In the autumn of 1888 MacDowell returned to America and settled in Boston. He was already well known as a composer, and made his first appearance as a pianist at Chickering Hall with the Kneisel Quartet in November, 1888. In 1889 he played at a Thomas Orchestra concert in New York and achieved instant success. From that time forward his reputation as a composer and performer grew, until in 1896 at a concert in New York, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played the first piano concerto, The Indian Suite, on the same program. In the autumn of 1896 a Chair of Music was endowed at Columbia University in New York City and MacDowell was called to fill it. Inharmonious conditions at the University and a desire to devote most of his time to composition led him to resign this position in 1904. About two years later in New York City he was knocked down by a cab, which passed over his neck. From that time an incurable mental and nervous disease set in and he died in New York, Jan. 23, 1908.


Picking out special compositions of MacDowell's for discussion is not an easy task, owing to the almost uniform excellence and the total dissimilarity of subject-matter and treatment. The selections in this case are made on the basis of those compositions probably best known to the public. Under this head the Indian Suite for orchestra probably comes first. In a prefatory note Mr. MacDowell acknowledges the source of his themes for this to be the music of American Indian folk-songs, but the treatment is quite his own. Vigorous and strong in construction, masterly in arrangement of theme against theme, it is finished with a refinement and delicacy which adds much of smoothness in the sequence of its unusual and at times almost bizarre motives. It is one of the very first American compositions for orchestra and holds its own when placed on a program with such works as Tschaikpwski's Sixth Symphony. The four piano sonatas are all masterly. In the first, the Tragica, unlike most of his compositions, the poetical inspiration is not definitely designated, but this is not necessary, and the directness and the dignity with which he has achieved his results are impressive. There is nothing theatrical or sentimental about it. It is a simple but marvelously artistic statement of tragedy as one of the facts of life. The Eroica is the second sonata chronologically, and bears the subtitle, A Flower from the Realm of King Arthur. Expressive of the highest human emotion, it is one of the most adequate musical versions of the Arthurian stories tuat has been made. Full of form and color, and wonderful in its descriptive power is the Norse Sonata, dedicated to Edvard Grieg. The picturesqueness of this subject appealed to the poetic side of the man, and the result is a tone-picture of almost barbaric splendor. Some of the passages are primitively vigorous in character, others are poignant with his own Gaelic tenderness. The Keltic Sonata is probably his masterpiece. Hauntingly beautiful, with the strange, dim beauty of ancient legends, this musical compostion mirrors all the dream glory of the heroic Gaelic world. Another field in which MacDowell has  composed much is that of song-writing. In this smaller form of musical composition he has written some things that are wonderful bits of musical expression. It is often said that these songs demand almost impossible tone sequences of the human voice, yet for sheer beauty of conception and absolute union of poetic sentiment and musical expression, they command admiration. In his smaller pieces for piano we have another development of his genius, one which is perhaps more intimate than all the others. A pianist of excellent abilities, he was able to give his own interpretation to these pieces as a sort of key by which could be deciphered all the mystery and beauty of his larger works. The fascination of his sympathetic treatment of nature is keenly felt in such pieces as those which comprise the series he calls Woodland Sketches. The lightness and grace with which he has treated Will o' the Wisp and To a Wild Rose; the dignity and simple strength he has given the Indian theme in From an Indian Lodge; the tenderness and poetic feeling shown in At an Old Trysting Place, a Deserted Farm, and in Autumn, place this set of sketches high in the list of his works. In his Sea Pieces he is wonderfully true to nature and has caught and portrayed the majesty, the mystery and fascination of this mighty force with remarkable fidelity. And in his Moon Pictures, suggested by themes from Hans Christian Andersen, one feels the poetry, romance and charm all clearly expressed. The leading characteristics of this composer are imagination and poetic feeling. As a man he was retiring and modest, but staunch in the support of his ideals and convictions. We live too near to him to estimate the ultimate value of his work and its influence on our national music, or to rightly place him among the musicians of the world.