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
His 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
of his parents, 220 Clinton Street, New York.
The father was a man of artistic
instincts, and as a youth, fond of
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
The boy had his first piano lessons when
he was about eight years old,
a family friend, Mr. Juan Buitrago, a native of Bogota, South America.
Buitrago became greatly interested in Edward and asked permission to
him his notes. At that time the boy was not considered a prodigy, or
precocious, though he seemed to have various gifts. He was fond of
his music and exercise books with little drawings, which showed he had
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
piano, but was not fond of technical drudgery at the instrument in
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
lessons from the brilliant Venezuelan pianist, Teresa Carreño,
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,
was thought necessary for Americans to go to Europe for serious study
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
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
of the lesson hours he was varying the monotony by drawing, behind his
book, a picture of his teacher, whose special facial characteristic was
very large nose. Just as the sketch was finished he was detected and
asked to show the result. The professor, instead of being angry,
it a remarkable likeness and asked to keep it. Shortly after this the
professor called on Mrs. MacDowell, telling her he had shown the
to an eminent painter, also an instructor at the école des Beaux
painter had been so greatly impressed with the boy's talent that he
him a three years' course of free instruction, under his own
He also promised to be responsible for Edward's support during that
This was a vital question to decide; the
boy's whole future hung in the
balance. Mrs. MacDowell, in her perplexity, laid the whole matter
Marmontel, who strongly advised against diverting her son from a
career. The decision was finally left to Edward himself, and he chose
remain at the Conservatoire.
Conditions there, however, were not just
to his liking, and after two
he began to think the school was not the place for him. It was the
of 1878, the year of the Exposition. Edward and his mother attended a
festival concert and heard Nicholas Rubinstein play the Tschaikowsky B
minor piano Concerto. His performance was a revelation. "I can never
to play the piano like that if I stay here," exclaimed Edward, as they
They began to consider the merits of the
different European schools of
music, and finally chose Stuttgart. Mrs. MacDowell and her son went
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
have to unlearn all he had acquired and begin from the beginning. And
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
After months of delay, during which
young MacDowell worked under the
guidance of Ehlert, he at last entered the Frankfort Conservatory,
composition with Raff, and piano with Heymann. Both proved very
teachers. For Heymann he had the greatest admiration, calling him a
whose technic was equal to anything. "In hearing him practise and play,
learned more in a week than I ever knew before."
Edward MacDowell remained in close study
at the Frankfort Conservatory
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,
Marian Nevins, he afterwards married. He must have been a rather
looking youth at this time. He was nineteen. Tall and vigorous, with
eyes, fair skin, rosy cheeks, very dark hair and reddish mustache, he
called "the handsome American." He seemed from the start, to have
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
the trip each day between the two towns. Besides this he went once a
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
were not lost, as he composed the greater part of his Second Modern
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,
German and English, and delving into the folk and fairy lore of
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
strength, so he gave up the position and remained in Frankfort,
his time between private teaching and composing. He hoped to secure a
paying concert engagements, as those he had already filled had brought
One day, as he sat dreaming before his
piano, some one knocked at the
and the next instant in walked his master Raff, of whom the young
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
working on a concerto. 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
came only the first movement was ready. Postponing the visit a week or
he had time to complete the work, which stands today, as he wrote it
with scarcely a correction.
At Raff's suggestion, MacDowell visited
Liszt in the spring of 1882.
dreaded encounter with the master proved to be a delightful surprise,
Liszt treated him with much kindness and courtesy. Eugen D'Albert, who
present, was asked to accompany the orchestral part of the concerto on
a second piano. Liszt commended the work in warm terms: "You must
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
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, 1883, "and I accept
with sincere pleasure and thanks the dedication of your piano
The passing of Raff, on June 25, 1882,
was a severe blow to MacDowell.
was in memory of his revered teacher that he composed the "Sonata
the first of the four great sonatas he has left us. The slow movement
this Sonata especially embodies his sorrow at the loss of the teacher
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,
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
but mostly in composing, with much reading of the literature of various
countries, and, in the spring, with long walks in the beautiful woods
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
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
thought the little cottage an ideal spot for a home. It was soon
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,
the symphonic poem "Lamia," "Hamlet and Ophelia," the "Lovely Aida,"
"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
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,
which were the two great Sonatas, the "Tragica" and "Eroica." One of
important appearances was his playing of the Second Concerto with the
Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, under Anton Seidl, in December,
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
than he could accept. The prospect of organizing a new department from
very beginning was a difficult task to undertake. At first he
he was in truth in no hurry to accept the offer, and wished to weigh
sides carefully. But the idea of having an assured income finally
him to decide in favor of Columbia, and he moved from Boston to New
the following autumn.
He threw himself into this new work with
great ardor and entire
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
labor to organize and keep all this going, unaided. After two years he
granted an assistant, who took over the elementary classes. But even
this help, MacDowell's labors were increasingly arduous. He now had six
courses instead of five, which meant more classes and lectures each
Perhaps the most severe drain on his time and strength was the
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
advice in their piano work and in composition.
Amid all this labor his public playing
had to be given up, but
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,
Tales, and New England Idyls. The Woodland Sketches had already been
published and some of his finest songs. Indeed nearly one quarter of
his compositions were the fruit of those eight years while he held the
In 1896 he bought some property near
Peterboro, New Hampshire—fifteen
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
each year. He built a little log cabin in the woods near by, and here
wrote some of his best music.
In 1904 MacDowell left Columbia, but
continued his private piano
and sometimes admitted free such students as were unable to pay. After
arduous labors at Columbia, which had been a great drain on his
he should have had a complete rest and change. Had he done so, the
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
no relief to the exhausted composer. In the fall of that year his
appeared worse. Although he seemed perfectly well in body, his mind
gradually became like that of a child. The writer was privileged to see
on one occasion, and retains an ineffaceable memory of the composer in
white flannels, seated in a large easy chair, taking little notice of
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
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
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
service was held. On the following day the composer was taken to
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:
"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
'A house of dreams untold
It looks out over the whispering tree-tops
And faces the setting sun.'"