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Edward MacDowell

Edward MacDowell was one of the most celebrated American composers in the nineteenth century. His compositions won the approval of music critics, both in Europe and the United States, as well as of his contemporaries, including composers such as Franz Liszt and Joachim Raff. MacDowell's early works bear the influence of his training in Germany, reflecting European styles and cultures. Nearly all of his compositions feature descriptive titles, a trend representative of Romantic music. He was among the first seven Americans honored by membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1904.

While there has been controversy in determining his birth year, recent evidence suggests that MacDowell was born in New York City on December 18th, 1860. The son of Thomas MacDowell and Frances "Fanny" Knapp MacDowell, the youth grew up in a Quaker household on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Frances MacDowell firmly believed that Edward should have music lessons, so she arranged for her eight-year old son to take piano lessons from Colombian violinist Juan Buitrago. MacDowell soon surpassed Buitrago's abilities and began studying piano with Cuban pianist Pablo Desverine. Desverine's lessons were supplemented by sessions with Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, who later championed MacDowell's works.

In 1876, at the age of fifteen, MacDowell, accompanied by his mother, traveled to France to enroll in the Paris Conservatoire. He earned one of the conservatoire's scholarships awarded to foreign students and gained admission to Antoine François Marmontel's studio. Marmontel was one of the most sought-after piano teachers of the time, and he accepted only thirteen students, including MacDowell, out of 230 applicants. After only two years, MacDowell grew dissatisfied with the instruction at the conservatoire and moved to Germany to continue his education.

In the fall of 1879, MacDowell entered the Frankfurt Conservatory, where he studied piano with Carl Heymann and composition with Joachim Raff. It was during this time that MacDowell became acquainted with Franz Liszt. Upon visiting Raff's class in early 1880, Liszt heard MacDowell play the piano part of Robert Schumann's Quintet. The following year, MacDowell visited Liszt in Weimar and played his own Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 15, for the maestro. On Liszt's recommendation, MacDowell's First Modern Suite, op. 10, was performed on 11 July 1882 at the Allgemeine deutsche Musikverein. Liszt also encouraged the prestigious Leipzig firm of Breitkopf & Härtel to publish the work.

After Heymann's retirement in 1881, MacDowell began his professional career as a teacher at the Darmstadt Conservatory. He resigned a year later, but continued to teach privately. He fell in love with one of his students, Marian Nevins, whom he secretly married on 11 July 1884. The couple lived in Germany for several years, during which time MacDowell dedicated himself solely to composition. He achieved fame with his Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 15, which was championed by Carreño, and his Fantasy Pieces, op. 17.

Financial difficulties forced the MacDowells to return to America in 1888, and for nearly ten years they resided in Boston. Among the compositions penned by MacDowell during this period was his Indian Suite for orchestra, one of his most famous works. In 1896 the MacDowells purchased land in New Hampshire, and in a cabin built on this property, Edward composed his Woodland Sketches, op. 51 (1896), for piano. The natural surroundings of this New Hampshire retreat would ultimately inspire generations of composers, for it was in this location in 1907 that the MacDowell Colony was established. The colony, a sanctuary for composers, painters, authors, and sculptors, continues to sponsor and support artists to this day.

MacDowell joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1896. As the sole music professor at the university for nearly two years, MacDowell also served as the department's administrator. In addition to teaching, he directed the Mendelssohn Glee Club. He also started an all-male chorus at Columbia University in order to raise artistic standards of college glee clubs and music societies.

MacDowell's compositions include two piano concertos, two orchestral suites, four symphonic poems, four piano sonatas, piano suites, forty-two songs, and choral music, most of which is for male voices. He also published dozens of piano transcriptions of eighteenth-century pre-piano keyboard pieces.

In 1904, after serious disputes with Murray Butler (the new president of Columbia) regarding the role of the university's music program, MacDowell resigned from the post and fell into a depression. His health rapidly deteriorated. E. Douglas Bomberger's biography notes that MacDowell suffered from seasonal affective disorder throughout his life, and often made decisions with negative implications in the darkest months of the year. Bomberger advances a new theory for the sudden decline of MacDowell's health: bromide poisoning, which was sometimes mistaken for paresis at the time, as was the case with MacDowell's death certificate. MacDowell had long suffered from insomnia, and potassium bromide or sodium bromide were the standard treatment for that condition, and in fact were used in many common remedies of the day. MacDowell also was in contact with bromides through his avid hobby of photography

A 1904 accident in which MacDowell was run over by a cab on Broadway may have contributed to his growing psychiatric disorder and resulting dementia. Of his final years, Lawrence Gilman, a contemporary, described: "His mind became as that of a little child. He sat quietly, day after day, in a chair by a window, smiling patiently from time to time at those about him, turning the pages of a book of fairy tales that seemed to give him a definite pleasure, and greeting with a fugitive gleam of recognition certain of his more intimate friends."

Marian MacDowell cared for her husband to the end of his life. In 1907, the composer and his wife founded MacDowell artists' residency and workshop. MacDowell died in 1908 in New York City and was buried at his beloved Hillcrest Farm.

Selected Performances

Winter (1888) - "Winter" is the fourth composition in MacDowell's piano suite "Four Little Poems." It was written in 1888 and based on a poem by Shelley. I think MacDowell perfectly captures sometimes melancholy feeling of Winter we all have from time to time. Here's Shelley's poem:

A widow bird sate mourning for her Love

Upon a wintery bough;

The frozen wind crept on above,

The freezing stream below.

There was no leaf upon the forest bare,

No flower upon the ground,

And little motion in the air

Except the mill-wheel's sound.

- Shelley


At an Old Trysting Place (1896) - "At an Old Trysting Place" is the 3rd piece in MacDowell's beautifully crafted Woodland Sketches. This suite of ten short piano pieces was written during an 1896 stay at MacDowell's summer retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where each piece was inspired by a different aspect of the surrounding nature and landscape.


A Deserted Farm (1896) - "A Deserted Farm" is the 8th piece in the 10-piece suite called Woodland Sketches. The music critic Lawrence Gilman described "A Deserted Farm" as the "quintessence of [MacDowell]'s style". The piece opens and ends with a grave theme in the minor key. This is contrasted by a middle section in the major key, marked "pianissimo as heard from afar" to indicate echoes from past barn dances. For this work, MacDowell was inspired by an abandoned farmstead where he and his wife previously had lunch.

Locating the Music

MacDowell's piano music is easily found on Amazon, IMSLP, and Sheet Music Plus.

List of Solo Piano Compositions

First Modern Suite for piano (1883)

Prelude and Fugue for piano (1883)

Second Modern Suite for piano (1883)

Serenata for piano (1883)

Two Fantasy Pieces for piano (1884)

Two Compositions for piano (1884)

Forest Idyls for Piano (1884)

Four Compositions for piano (1887)

Six Idyls after Goethe for piano (1887)

Six Poems after Heine for piano (1887, 1901)

Four Little Poems for piano (1888)

Etude de Concert for piano (1889)

Les Orientales for piano (1889)

Marionettes for piano (1888, 1901)

Twelve Studies for piano (1890)

Piano Sonata No.1, Sonata Tragica (1893)

Twelve Virtuoso Studies for piano (1894)

Air and Rigaudon for piano (1894)

Piano Sonata No.2, Sonata Eroica (1895)

Amourette for piano (1896)

In Lilting Rhythm for piano (1896)

Woodland Sketches for piano (1896)

Forgotten Fairy Tales for piano (1897)

Sea Pieces for piano (1898)

Piano Sonata No.3, Norse Sonata (1900)

Piano Sonata No.4, Keltic Sonata (1901)

Fireside Tales for piano (1902)

New England Idyls for piano (1902)


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