Edward Alexander MacDowell

Edward Alexander MacDowell (1861-1908), pianist and composer, was among the first American musicians to win an international reputation. In the late 19th century he was considered the greatest composer of the United States.

Edward MacDowell was born on Dec. 18, 1861, into an upper-middle-class family in New York City. His father was Scottish; his mother was Irish. The boy early showed promise as a musician and received every encouragement from his family. At the age of 8 he began piano lessons, and when he was 15 his mother took him to Paris for study. For a year he was a pupil of Antoine François Marmontel. In 1877 MacDowell won a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory. After 2 years he grew disenchanted with the conservatory and left for Germany.

For a brief time MacDowell was a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory and then went to the Frankfurt Conservatory, where he studied piano with Karl Heymann and composition with Joachim Raff. By 1880 MacDowell had decided to devote himself primarily to composition, although he continued private piano lessons and began taking pupils himself. His first published work was First Modern Suite, which had been written between lessons.

In 1882 MacDowell called on Franz Liszt at Weimar. Liszt not only encouraged the American to devote himself to composition but helped him secure publication of his early works. Two years later MacDowell married Marian Nevins, one of his pupils.

In 1888 MacDowell returned to the United States permanently, spending 8 years in Boston as a composer, teacher, and concert pianist. He made a number of concert tours, specializing in his own music, which by then was much in demand. In 1896 he was invited to head the new department of music at Columbia University. MacDowell was not temperamentally suited for either an administrative position or the routine aspects of academic life. He resigned in 1904 after a public disagreement with the faculty over the position of music and the fine arts in the university curriculum. He did some private teaching for a year, but by 1905 mental deterioration had become evident. He died in New York City on Jan. 23, 1908.

His Works

Although MacDowell's compositions are not as highly regarded today as they once were, they are still among the most frequently performed American works. In style MacDowell has much in common with the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, and his smaller piano pieces are generally superior to his larger orchestral works. MacDowell wrote two piano concertos (1884, 1890). The Second Concerto has maintained a consistent popularity, but neither shows the imaginative depth of his later works. He wrote four sonatas: the Tragica, the Eroica, the Norse, and the Keltic, but not until the Twelve Virtuoso Studies for piano (1894) did MacDowell demonstrate his maturity as a composer. Of his Woodland Sketches (1896) the most popular are To a Wild Rose and To a Water Lily, both quite excellent. The Sea Pieces (1898) reveal him at the height of his lyric and dramatic ability.

MacDowell's first purely orchestral work was the tone poem Hamlet and Ophelia (1885). Lancelot and Elaine (1888), the First Suite for Orchestra (1891), and the Second (Indian) Suite (1896) conclude his orchestral writing. The Indian Suite ranks among his best compositions for orchestra, although MacDowell insisted that he was not intending to write American music simply by employing Indian themes. Besides his choruses, he published over 40 songs, some set to his own poems and all reflecting his remarkable gift for melody.

At heart MacDowell was a romantic, essentially in the German tradition. He was probably at his best when expressing the moods of nature. In these smaller, impressionistic pieces he caught much of the American spirit, blending romantic techniques with an intimate feeling for the American scene. "If a composer is sincerely American at heart," MacDowell said, "his music will be American."

Further Reading on Edward Alexander MacDowell

MacDowell's Critical and Historical Essays, edited by W. J. Baltzell (1912), is an interesting collection of lectures. The best biographies of MacDowell are Elizabeth Fry Page, Edward MacDowell: His Work and Ideals (1910), and John F. Porte, Edward MacDowell, a Great American Tone Poet: His Life and Music (1922). There is a comprehensive chapter on MacDowell in Gilbert Chase, America's Music from the Pilgrims to the Present (1955; 2d ed. 1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Porte, John Fielder, Edward MacDowell: a great American tone poet, his life and music, Boston: Longwood Press, 1978.