American Classical Folk Composer

Plaid to Paisley Background

Ironically, the new baby boy born in New York City on December 18, 1861 was more Scottish in name-- Edward Alexander MacDowell-- than in blood. His great-great grandfather married an Irish lass, and had a Belfast born son, Alexander. He emigrated to New York and married a woman there that was also of Irish descent. The Quaker couple's son and Edward's father, Thomas, a wannabe artist forced into business, married his mother, Frances that was of English background. Thus this mix provided the All-American palette for fresh and strong creative juices.

Talent Scouted

When the young lad was eight, Thomas and Frances enlisted the piano instruction of Juan Buitrago, recently from one of our Southern continental American neighbors. He assessed the boy's potential, and eventually Edward progressed to another music teacher, Pablo Desvernine, a Frenchman from Cuba. And from there he was furthered in his tutoring with the Gottschalk-trained pianist, Venezuelan Teresa Carreño, but the pre-adolescent Edward would almost rather doodle his marvelous drawings, than be disciplined with the studies.

How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm

In the spring of 1876, Frances took the boy to Paris, France to take successfully the necessary tests for admission into the Conservatoire. He started classes in the fall session under the piano instruction of Antoine-François Marmontel. The sixty-year old Marmontel had previously as pupils, Georges Bizet, Vincent d'Indy, Josef Wieniawski, François Thomé, and other famous artists. And Edward learned musical theory and composition from the sixty-two year old Marie-Gabriel-Augustin Savard while being the same aged classmate of Claude Debussy. His instrumentation teacher, who Edward sketched during his boring exercises, especially featuring his proboscis like cameo, actually liked the confiscated drawing. He actually sent it to an art professor at the École des Beaux Arts whose high estimation caused the boy to have to make a career choice. Music became his sole preoccupation after some helpful counsel was garnered by his mother from Marmontel.

Fed Up in France

By 1878 he was beginning to think he met an educational zenith, and his fears were grounded when he heard the dean of the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolaï Rubinstein playing a Tchaikovsky piano-concerto --the way it should be executed. He wished he could go to Russia where they appreciated artists, not like the ingrate Parisians who snubbed Bizet and Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. Regarding Hector Berlioz he laments:

The French composer is dependent on his country (Paris) as is no musician of {any} other nationality. Berlioz's life was embittered by the want of recognition in Paris. Although he had been acclaimed as a great musician all over Europe, yet he returned again and again to Paris, preferring (as he admits) the approbation of its musically worthless public to his otherwise world-wide fame. This influence of the admittedly ignorant and superficial French public is the more remarkable when one considers the fact that it was always the last to admit the value of the best work of its composers. Thus Berlioz's fame was gained in Russia and Germany while he was still derided and comparatively unknown in Paris.

Writing on this subject, he comments on the absurdity--

And yet, even Saint-Saëns, whose name became known chiefly through Liszt's help, and whose operas and symphonies were given in Germany before they were known in France, even he is one of the most ardent adherents to the "anti-foreigner" cry in France. In my opinion, this respect for and attempt to please this grossly ignorant French public is and has been one of the most devitalizing influences which hamper the French composer.
He was told of good German schools in Frankfort and Leipzig, but settled for the one in Stuttgart.

Struggling in Stuttgart

The terrible fact was that the systematic form of teaching almost required his re-learning, and he writhed under their teaching, (remarked as well that it probably would have stifled even Rubenstein), including that from Dr. Professor Siegmund Lebert (Levine). After his failed attempt to recruit Hans von Bülow, mother came through again arranging a Weisbaden meeting with the former Court-pianist at Hesse, and new member of Frankfort's Hoch Conservatory, Karl Heymann. He stayed in Weisbaden until the fall courses, but was tutored in the meantime under, Louis Ehlert, mentor at Meiningen, and a former student of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.

Relishing Frankfort

Right as the decade turned, Edward MacDowell found the atmosphere of learning and society in Frankfort was so much more accommodating. He had the Director of the Conservatory, Swiss-born composer Joseph Joachim Raff go the extra mile in caring for encouraging Edward's talents beyond the composition studies. His emphasis on melody would transfer to MacDowell. He proceeded with piano so wonderfully under Heymann, that upon his teacher's retirement in 1880, the young American was suggested as candidate to be his successor by him and Raff. Those last two personal attributes of MacDowell's were his disqualifying ones, however, especially when the competition was fierce. There was one good thing about his relegating himself to moonlighting out piano lessons instead, this gave him the opportunity to meet someone he was quite taken with, an American student, Miss Marian Nevins.

European Apex

In 1881 MacDowell was given the head teaching job of piano at the Conservatory in Darmstadt, but he did not remain in this position very long: the pay being too meager to be worth the hassle of it's time commitment restraints. On his own he was able to give concerts in not only Darmstadt and Weisbaden, but gave smashing performances in Baden-Baden, Ulm, and Hamburg. He now found time to write, but the pipe-dream concerto that he bragged was being worked on after Raff made him a surprise visit --had to be hastily made reality. Raff had asked him to have the work brought to him that coming Sunday, but he stalled for another week and then was ready. The delighted Raff now proceeded to get Edward a meeting with Franz Lizst in Weimer. When they got together, he also chanced upon a visiting Eugène d'Albert. D'Albert asked him to play his second piano part for them, and an enthralled Lizst accepted the dedication and he was invited to perform at the next annual General German Musi-Verein in Zurich on July of 1881. At this propitious occasion he played his Opus 10 work worked on several years earlier, and in spite of its name was his first saved work, First Modern Suite in six movements. Raff died a month before he played this, and he dedicated the publication of this piece to him. This music would not reflect what MacDowell would become artistically, however. This same time he was working on his Second Modern Suite (which included a "Fantastic Dance") published in 1884, while sending his new friend a hand drawn portrait endorsed with some verse, which was a forerunner of his future endeavors. He wrote in this early middle part of the 80's Hexzentanz or Witches' Dance, and his four Forest Idyls: "Forest Stillness," "Play of the Nymphs," "Reverie," and "Dance of the Dryads," all dedicated to his love, Miss Nevins. His inspiration built so much to the boiling point that he made an impromptu visit to the Nevins' house in the United States and the unexpected stranger to their family asked for her hand.

She moved back with him to Europe as his wife in 1884 and during the next year they made a home in Weisbaden that became a workshop for Edward's music. He offered manuscripts to various orchestras for their perusal to play, and eventually his First Piano Suite was featured by Louis Melbourne playing at an "American Concert" at his honeymoon spot, London; and that same work was played in New York City at a "Novelty Concert. He finished in 1885 his well-renown first Symphonic Poem, Hamlet and Ophelia dedicated to London friends Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

London Bridge is Falling Down

In 1885 his memories of London were so fond he applied for a professorship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Not only was his being American was held against him, but his modernism as associated with Lizst was his undoing. In 1887, he left urban Frankfort and Weisbaden for the hill-country outside of there, retreating to a little cottage he purchased. He was able to finish his Second piano Concerto dedicated to that earlier teacher, Teresa Carreño, who in 1884 in New York had played that second Suite of six movements.

Sound a Retreat

Although he experienced some health problems, and took some time traveling, he still managed to write Four Pieces for the Piano: "Humoresque," "March," "Cradle Song," and "Czardas;" a Second Symphonic Poem, Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine", Six Songs: "From an Old Garden" (verse-M. Deland), Three-Part Songs for Male Chorus, Six Little Pieces, Idyls after Goethe for Pianoforte, Third Symphonic Poem: Keats's "Lamia" (published posthumously), partial finished symphonic works for orchestra, The Saracens, The Lovely Alda; Six Poems (Heine), the highly regarded Four Little Poems for Pianoforte, and, whew!, his Romance for Cello and Orchestra in honor of David Popper.

I'm So Glad to be Back in the USA ...

By 1888 he had sold their little bucolic place and moved to Boston where he made his first American public showing at a Kneisel Quartet concert. He played three movements from his First Piano Suite and the piano part for Goldmark's B-flat Quintet. The next spring he played his Second Piano Concerto in New York to repeated standing ovations and a critic for The Tribune gushed that MacDowell's score was : the head of all works of its kind produced by either a native or adopted citizen of America.
That piece was played right afterwards in London by Ms. Carreño, and he did likewise in 1903 for the Royal Philharmonic.

Boston Beans

He wrote several more works residing in this New England Art center, but he was not happy with Étude de Concert in F Sharp, basically considering it hack; Victor Hugo's Les Orientals (even though it contains the delightful "Claire de Lune", and Marionettes, six mini-compositions written devoted to sister-in-law Nina. He did revise the last two groups of music later.

Nebula in the Nineties

In 1889 he played is D Minor Concerto to enthusiastic audiences, and his presence was requested widely. In 1890 he published his first teaching matter, which are works of art themselves, Twelve Études for the Development of Technique and Style for the Piano. That year he put out Six Love Songs, Male Part-Songs, The Cradle Song, and Dance of the Gnomes. In the next fall his pastoral inspired Suite in A-Minor: "In a Haunted Forest,""Summer Idyl," "In October," "The Song of the Shepherdess," and "Forest Spirits" was played at the Worcester Music Festival. The American and unique feel in his music was becoming stronger as this decade moved along as exampled by his First Piano Sonata, "Tragica." The Kneisel Quartet had the honors of presenting it in Boston in 1893. Some of his cherished works are the Twelve Virtuoso Studies for Pianoforte, and Eight Songs for Voice and Piano. Many of the words were translated, but as many were his creations. From his Fire Songs and its


Thou straight line of eternal fate
That ring'st the world,
Whilst on thy moaning breast
We play our puny parts,
And reckon us immortal.
Could there be derived some prophetic insight from this?. Some of his shorter poems have been compared to haikus.

Boston Pow-Wow

In 1896 the Boston Symphony played his important All-American work, Indian Suite dedicated to that same conductor, Emil Paur. This was the beginning of MacDowell's love of Native American tunes and the novel utilization of their romantic living-from-the-land story. This was a series of half-a-dozen that was widely discerned as totally different. He also wrote in that productive year an Arthurian musical epic, Eroica Sonata. His rural musings continued with Woodland Sketches, which with songs like, "From an Indian Lodge" show this continued fascination, but now adds another American element, called then the Negro people, (now more respectfully and accepted designated Blacks) in his "From Uncle Remus." He lived what he loved -- and this year was when he bought the famous farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire (which has become a retreat existing even today for artists known as the MacDowell Colony). He was able to do three times the writing at this serene location.

Goin' Back to New York City...

This same year MacDowell becomes the first professor of music for the new chair at Columbia University in New York City. The salary fortunately matched the prestige, but was still wary of its possible demands on his composing. Though his class-rooms were jam-packed to capacity, he ran into the overly conservative reactionaries lording over him. Like poet/professor Woodberry, MacDowell left the institution in 1904. Before he left he still managed to write three sets of male choruses, Four Songs for Voice and Pianoforte: "Long Ago, Sweetheart Mine, "The Swan Bent Low to the Lily," "A Maid Sings Light," and, "As the Gloaming Shadows Creep." (This a nostalgic Minnesinger.) He did a significant work, Eight "Sea Pieces" for Pianoforte. By 1900 he had the "Norse" Sonata, dreaming of Viking adventure, published followed the next year by more in the series with the "Keltic" Sonata, where he delved Jungian expression from his own ancestral genetics.

Who minds now Keltic tales of yore,
Dark Druid rhymes that thrall,
Deirdrés song, and wizard lore
Of great Cuchullin's hall?
He took a Sabbatical in 1902, touring the coastal U.S. as well as returning to the Royal Philharmonic in London, England . He took advantage of his time from teaching to write two pianoforte works, Fireside Tales and the poetic Ten New England Idyls. "Indian Idyl" gives us a glimpse of his affair with aboriginal people:
Alone by the wayward flame
She weaves broad wampun skeins,
While afar through the Summer night
Sigh the wooing flutes' soft strains.
These were the last songs for piano that he wrote and in this group, "The Joy of Autumn" is like an oracle, but in "From a Log Cabin" are a trio of lines which fittingly mark his grave:
A house of dreams untold,
It looks out over the whispering tree-tops
And faces the setting sun.

Song Without a Singer

Some unknown malady of mind and emotion, that eventually evolved into a catatonic-like state began to erode his abilities to continue as before. He had great plans for great works, like a symphony, but only bits and pieces are existing for three movements of that potential masterpiece. Leaving the University in 1904 for his farm gave no cure for the sleeplessness and general unraveling of his nerves. By the time of his death in New York at the Westminster Hotel on a cruel January day on the 23rd of 1908, he was not even aware of his surroundings including family and dear acquaintances.

A day of mighty deeds was past
And through the night the north light stalked;
The wind made lonely moan.

"Norse" --E. MacDowell

Of course, we are all so blessed that he left a legacy of peculiar --in the good sense-- music behind that allows him live on with us, as well as an creative refuge in New Hampshire.

Famous Composers, Nathan Haskell Dole, Thomas Crowell: NY, rev. 1925.