EDWARD MACDOWELL has been acclaimed America’s greatest composer. If we try to substitute another name in its place, one of equal potency cannot be found.
Our composer’s ancestors were Irish and Scotch, though his father was born in New York City and his mother was an American girl. Edward was their third son, and appeared December 18, 1861; this event happened at the home of his parents, 220 Clinton Street, New York.
The father was a man of artistic instincts, and as a youth, fond of drawing and painting. His parents had been Quakers of a rather severe sort and had discouraged all such artistic efforts. Little Edward seems to have inherited his father’s artistic gifts, added to his own inclination toward music.
The boy had his first piano lessons when he was about eight years old, from a family friend, Mr. Juan Buitrago, a native of Bogota, South America. Mr. Buitrago became greatly interested in Edward and asked permission to teach him his notes. At that time the boy was not considered a prodigy, or even precocious, though he seemed to have various gifts. He was fond of covering his music and exercise books with little drawings, which showed he had the innate skill of a born artist. Then he liked to scribble bits of verses and stories and invent fairy tales. He could improvise little themes at the piano, but was not fond of technical drudgery at the instrument in those early days.
The lessons with Mr. Buitrago continued for several years, and then he was taken to a professional piano teacher, Paul Desvernine, with whom he remained till he was fifteen. During this time he received occasional lessons from the brilliant Venezuelan pianist, Teresa Carreno, who admired his gifts and later played his piano concertos.
Edward was now fifteen, and his family considered he was to become a musician. In those days and for long after, even to the present moment, it was thought necessary for Americans to go to Europe for serious study and artistic finish. It was therefore determined the boy should go to Paris for a course in piano and theory at the Conservatoire. In April, 1876, accompanied by his mother, he left America for France.
He passed the examinations and began the autumn term as a pupil of Marmontel in piano and of Savard in theory and composition. Edward’s knowledge of French was very uncertain, and while he could get along fairly well in the piano class, he had considerable trouble in following the lessons in theory. He determined to make a special study of the language, and a teacher was engaged to give him private lessons.
His passion for drawing was liable to break out at any moment. During one of the lesson hours he was varying the monotony by drawing, behind his book, a picture of his teacher, whose special facial characteristic was a very large nose. Just as the sketch was finished be was detected and was asked to show the result. The professor, instead of being angry, considered it a remarkable likeness and asked to keep it. Shortly after this the professor called on Mrs. Mae Dowell, telling her he had shown the drawing to an eminent painter, also an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The painter had been so greatly impressed with the boy’s talent that he offered him a three years’ course of free instruction, under his own supervision. He also promised to be responsible for Edward’s support during that time.
This was a vital question to decide; the boy’s whole future hung in the balance. Mrs. Mae-Dowell, in her perplexity, laid the whole matter before Marmontel, who strongly advised against diverting her son from a musical career. The decision was finally left to Edward himself, and he chose to remain at the Conservatoire.
Conditions there, however, were not just to his liking, and after two years he began to think the school was not the place for him. It was the summer of 1878, the year of the Exposition. Edward and his mother attended a festival concert and heard Nicholas Rubinstein play the Tschaikowsky B flat minor piano Concerto. His performance was a revelation. “I can never learn to play the piano like that if I stay here,” exclaimed Edward, as they left the hall.
They began to consider the merits of the different European schools of music, and finally chose Stuttgart. Mrs. MacDowell and her son went there in November hoping that in this famous Conservatory could be found the right kind of instruction,
But alas, MacDowell soon found out his mistake. He discovered that he would have to unlearn all he had acquired and begin from the be-ginning. And even then the instruction was not very thorough.
They now thought of Frankfort, where the composer Joachim Raff was the director and Carl Heymann, a very brilliant pianist, was one of the instructors.
After months of delay, during which young MacDowell worked under the guidance of Ehlert, he at last entered the Frankfort Conservatory, studying composition with Raff, and piano with Heymann. Both proved very inspiring teachers. For Heymann he had the greatest admiration, calling him a marvel, whose technic was equal to anything. “In hearing him practise and play, I learned more in a week than I ever knew before.”
Edward MacDowell remained in close study at the Frankfort Conservatory for two years, his mother having in the meantime returned to America. He had hoped to obtain a place as professor on the teaching staff of the institution. Failing to do this he took private pupils. One of these, Miss Marian Nevins, he afterwards married. He must have been a rather striking looking youth at this time. He was nineteen. Tall and vigorous, with blue eyes, fair skin, rosy cheeks, very dark hair and reddish mustache, he was called “the handsome American.” He seemed from the start, to have success in teaching, though he was painfully shy, and always remained so.
In 1881, when he was twenty, he applied for the position of head piano teacher in the Darmstadt Conservatory, and was accepted. It meant forty hours a week of drudgery, and as he preferred to live in Frankfort, he made the trip each day between the two towns. Besides this he went once a week to a castle about three hours away, and taught some little counts and countesses, really dull and sleepy children, who cared but little if anything for music. However the twelve hours spent in the train each week, were not lost, as he composed the greater part of his Second Modern Suite for piano, Op. 14; the First Modern Suite had been written in
Frankfort the year before. He was reading at this period a great deal of poetry, both German and English, and delving into the folk and fairy lore of romantic Germany. All these imaginative studies exerted great influence on his subsequent compositions, both as to subject and content.
MacDowell found that the confining labors at Darmstadt were telling on his strength, so he gave up the position and remained in Frankfort, dividing his time between private teaching and composing. He hoped to secure a few paying concert engagements, as those he had already filled had brought in no money.
One day, as he sat dreaming before his piano, some one knocked at the door, and the next instant in walked his master Raff, of whom the young American stood in great awe. In the course of a few moments, Raff suddenly asked what he had been writing. In his confusion the boy stammered he had been working on a con certo. When Raff started to go, he turned back and told the boy to bring the concerto to him the next Sunday. As even the first movement was not finished, its author set to work with vigor. When Sunday came only the first movement was ready. Postponing the visit a week or two, he had time to complete the work, which stands today, as he wrote it then, with scarcely a correction.
At Raff’s suggestion, MacDowell visited Liszt in the spring of 1882. The dreaded encounter with the master proved to be a delightful surprise, as Liszt treated him with much kindness and courtesy. Eugen D’Albert, who was present, was asked to accompany the orchestral part of the concerto on a second piano. Liszt commended the work in warm terms : “You must bestir yourself,” he warned D’Albert, “if you do not wish to be outdone by our young American.” Liszt praised his piano playing too, and MacDowell returned to Frankfort in a happy frame of mind.
At a music Convention, held that year in Zurich, in July, MacDowell played his First Piano Suite, and won a good success. The following year, upon Liszt’s recommendation, both the First and Second Modern Suites were brought out by Breitkopf and Haertel. “Your two Piano Suites are admirable,” wrote Liszt from Budapest, in February, 1888? “and I accept with sincere pleasure and thanks the dedication of your piano Concerto.”
The passing of Raff, on June 25, 1882, was a severe blow to MacDowell. It was in memory of his revered teacher that he composed the “Sonata Tragica,” the first of the four great sonatas he has left us. The slow movement of this Sonata especially embodies his sorrow at the loss of the teacher who once said to him : “Your music will be played when mine is forgotten.”
For the next two years MacDowell did much composing. Then in June 1884 he returned to America, and in July was married to his former pupil, Miss Marian Nevins, a union which proved to be ideal for both. Shortly after this event the young couple returned to Europe.
The next winter was spent in Frankfort, instructing a few private pupils, but mostly in composing, with much reading of the literature of various countries, and, in the spring, with long walks in the beautiful woods about Frankfort. Wiesbaden became their home during the winter of 1885-6. The same year saw the completion of the second Piano Concerto, in D minor.
In the spring of 1887′, MacDowell, in one of his walks about the town, discovered a deserted cottage on the edge of the woods. It overlooked the town, with the Rhine beyond, and woods on the other side of the river. Templeton Strong, an American composer, was with him at the time, and both thought the little cottage an ideal spot for a home. It was soon purchased, and the young husband and wife lived an idyllic) life for the next year. A small garden gave them exercise out of doors, the woods were always enticing and best of all, MacDowell was able to give his entire time to composition. Many beautiful songs and piano pieces were the result, besides the symphonic poem “Lama, “Hamlet and Ophelia,” the “Lovely Alda,” “Lancelot and Elaine,” and other orchestral works.
In September, 1888, the MacDowells sold their Wiesbaden cottage and returned to America, settling in Boston. Here MacDowell made himself felt as a pianist and teacher. He took many pupils, and made a conspicuous number of public appearances. He also created some of his best work, among which were the two great Sonatas, the “Tragica” and “Enka.” One of the important appearances was his playing of the Second Concerto with the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, under Anton Seidl, in December, 1894.
In the spring of 1896 a Department of Music was founded at Columbia University, of New York, the professorship of which was offered to MacDowell. He had now been living eight years in Boston; his fame as a pianist and teacher was constantly growing; indeed more pupils came to him than he could accept. The prospect of organizing a new department from the
very beginning was a difficult task to undertake. At first he hesitated ; he was in truth in no hurry to accept the offer, and wished to weigh both sides carefully. But the idea of having an assured income finally caused him to decide in favor of Columbia, and he moved from Boston to New York the following autumn.
He threw himself into this new work with great ardor and entire devotion. With the founding of the department there were two distinct ideas to be carried out. First, to train musicians who would be able to teach and compose. Second, to teach musical history and aesthetics.
All this involved five courses, with many lectures each week, taking up form, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, composition, vocal and instrumental music, both from the technical and interpretative side. It was a tremendous labor to organize and keep all this going, unaided. After two years he was granted an assistant, who took over the elementary classes. But even with this help, MacDowell’s labors were increasingly arduous. He now had six courses instead of five, which meant more classes and lectures each week. Perhaps the most severe drain on his time and strength was the continual correction of exercise books and examination papers, a task which he performed with great patience and thoroughness. Added to all this, he devoted every Sunday morning to his advanced students, giving them help and advice in their piano work and in composition.
Amid all this labor his public playing had to be given up, but composition went steadily on. During the eight years of the Columbia professorship, some of the most important works of his life were produced; among them were, Sea Pieces the two later Sonatas, the Norse and the Keltic, Fireside Tales, and New England Idyls. The Woodland Sketches had already been published and some of his finest songs. Indeed nearly one quarter of all his compositions were the fruit of those eight years while he held the post at Columbia.
In 1896 he bought some property near Peterboro, New Hampshirefifteen acres with a small farmhouse and other buildings, and fifty acres of forest. The buildings were remodeled into a rambling but comfortable dwelling, and here, amid woods and hills he loved, he spent the summer of each year. He built a little log cabin in the woods near by, and here he wrote some of his best music.
In 1904 MacDowell left Columbia, but continued his private piano classes, and sometimes admitted free such students as were unable to pay. After his arduous labors at Columbia, which had been a great drain on his vitality, he should have had a complete rest and change.
Had he done so, the collapse which was imminent might have been averted. But he took no rest though in the spring of 1905 he began to show signs of nervous breakdown. The following summer was spent, as usual, in Peterboro but it seemed to bring no relief to the exhausted composer. In the fall of that year his ailment appeared worse. Although he seemed perfectly well in body, his mind gradually became like that of a child. The writer was privileged to see him on one occasion, and retains an ineffaceable memory of the composer in his white flannels, seated in a large easy chair, taking little notice of what was passing about him, seldom recognizing his friends or visitors, but giving the hand of his devoted wife a devoted squeeze when she moved to his side to speak to him.
This state continued for over two years, until his final release, January 23, 1908, as he had just entered his forty-seventh year. The old Westminster Hotel had been the MacDowell home through the long illness. From here is but a step to St. George’s Episcopal Church, where a simple service was held. On the following day the composer was taken to Peterboro, his summer home, a spot destined to play its part, due to the untiring efforts of Mrs. MacDowell, in the development of music in America.
Mr. Gilman tells us :
“His grave is on an open hill-top, commanding one of the spacious and beautiful views he had loved. On a bronze tablet are these lines of his own, used as a motto for his ‘From a Log Cabin,’ the last music he ever wrote:
A house of dreams untold It looks out over the whispering tree-tops And faces the setting sun.’ “