Edward Alexander MacDowell (December 18, 1860–January 23, 1908) was an American composer and pianist of the Romantic period who is best known for his second piano concerto and his piano suites Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, and New England Idylls. Born into a Quaker family of Scottish descent on December 18, 1861, in New York City, the son of Thomas MacDowell, a milkman, and Frances “Fanny” Knapp MacDowell, who was musically inclined, he received his first piano lessons at age eight from Juan Buitrago, a Colombian violinist who was living with the MacDowell family at the time. He later received lessons from friends of Buitrago, including the Venezuelan pianist and composer Teresa Carreño and the Cuban pianist Pablo Desverine. When he was fifteen, his family moved to Paris, France, where in 1877 he was admitted to 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.
MacDowell then continued his education at Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany, where he studied piano with Carl Heymann and composition with Joachim Raff. When Franz Liszt visited the conservatory in 1879 and attended a recital of student compositions, MacDowell performed some of his own compositions, along with a transcription of a Liszt symphonic poem. After Heymann’s retirement in 1881, MacDowell began his professional career as a teacher at the Conservatory. He resigned a year later, but continued to teach piano privately at “Schmitt’s Akademie für Tonkunst” in Darmstadt (now known as the “Akademie für Tonkunst”) for a year. In 1884, MacDowell married Marian Griswold Nevins, an American who was one of his piano students in Frankfurt for three years. About the time that MacDowell composed a piano piece titled “Cradle Song,” Marian suffered an illness that resulted in her being unable to bear children.
The MacDowells lived in Germany for several years, settling first in Frankfurt, then in Wiesbaden. From 1885 to 1888 MacDowell devoted himself almost exclusively to composition. His First Piano Concerto (1885) won him praise from none other than Franz Liszt, for whom he played it at Weimar and continued to gain him recognition when he performed it with the Boston Symphony upon his return to the States. Driven in part by financial difficulties, he decided to return to America in the autumn of 1888. For the next eighteen years MacDowell built a career as a respected teacher and composer. His early symphonic poems include Hamlet and Ophelia (1885), Lancelot and Elaine (1888), Lamia (1889), and The Saracens (1891). In 1889 he played in New York City the first performance of his Second Piano Concerto in D Minor, his most successful larger work, one that retains popularity throughout the world.
The MacDowells, encouraged in 1888, Benjamin Johnson Lang, a close family friend, lived in Boston, then the center of concert life in America, until 1896. Among the compositions penned by MacDowell during this period was his Indian Suite, op. 48 (1896), for orchestra, one of his most famous works. Then MacDowell became professor of music at Columbia University, a position which he held until 1904. In addition to composing and teaching, from 1896 to 1898 he directed the Mendelssohn Glee Club and composed some music for the group to perform. 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 also started an all-male chorus at Columbia in order to raise artistic standards of college glee clubs and music societies.
In 1896 the MacDowells purchased Hillcrest Farm, to serve as their summer residence in Peterborough, New Hampshire. MacDowell found his creativity flourished in the beautiful setting. In a cabin built on this property, he composed his Woodland Sketches, op. 51 (1896), for piano. His compositions included two piano concertos, two orchestral suites, four symphonic poems, four piano sonatas, piano suites, and songs. He also published dozens of piano transcriptions of mostly 18th century pre-piano keyboard pieces. From 1896 to 1898, MacDowell also published 13 piano pieces and 4 partsongs under the pseudonym of Edgar Thorn. In 1904, MacDowell was one of the first seven people chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After this experience, the MacDowells envisioned establishing a colony for artists near their summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
MacDowell was also a noted teacher of the piano, and his students included John Pierce Langs, a student from Buffalo, NY with whom he became very close friends. Langs was also close to noted Canadian pianist Harold Bradley, and both championed MacDowell’s piano compositions. The linguist Edward Sapir was also among his students. 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. Also in 1904, an accident in which MacDowell was run over by a Hansom cab may have contributed to failing health. This ended his composing and teaching career. The Mendelssohn Glee Club raised money to help the MacDowells. Friends launched a public appeal to raise funds for his care; among the signers were Horatio Parker, Victor Herbert, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Frederick Converse, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and former President Grover Cleveland.
Marian MacDowell cared for her husband to the end of his life. In 1907 she founded the MacDowell Colony by deeding the Hillcrest Farm to the newly established Edward MacDowell Association. She led the Association and Colony for more than 25 years, building its endowment through resuming her performing career, and creating a wide circle of support, especially among women’s clubs and musical sororities. During this time, however, Edward MacDowell’s health had deteriorated, and he died on January 23, 1908, at New York City with burial at the MacDowell Colony, which Marian had established at Hillcrest Farm. The MacDowell Colony continues to honor his memory by supporting the work of other artists in an interdisciplinary environment and remains today a mecca for artists seeking a stimulating and reflective environment for creative work. MacDowell was one of the first American composers to achieve any degree of international fame.
The following works by Edward MacDowell are included in my collection:
Hamlet and Ophelia, op. 22 (1884).
Hexentanz, op. 17 No. 2 (2nd of two Fantasy Pieces for solo piano, 1884).
Lamia, op. 29 (Symphonic Poem).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in am, op. 15 (1882).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in dm, op. 23 (1889).
Romance for Cello and Orchestra, op. 35.
Suite No. 1 for Large Orchestra, op. 42 (1893).
Suite No. 2, op. 48, Indian (1892).
To a Wild Rose (from Woodland Sketches).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources