As composer, piano virtuoso, and intellectual, Edward Alexander MacDowell (December 18, 1860-January 23, 1908) equaled or surpassed the achievements of his contemporaries as well as his peers in American music. All of his work was accomplished within the relatively short period of a score of years. As a concert artist on both sides of the Atlantic, he was America's musical matinee idol in the days before modern commercial exploitation of personality. Dozens of clubs bearing his name and devoted to the cause of good music were established during his lifetime and later to perpetuate his memory, When he could no longer act himself, his property in Peterborough, New Hampshire, was dedicated as the first American artist's colony, which has been in the forefront of the creative arts ever since. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame For Great Americans at New York University on the occasion of the centennial of his birth in 1960, only Stephen Collins Foster having preceded him.
The family name was originally spelled as in Scots-Irish, McDowell. On the threshold of international fame, the young musician, proud of his Protestant Scottish heritage, changed his name back to the spelling of his great-grandfather, Dr. Alexander MacDowell of Ayrshire, Scotland, from whom he also derived his middle name; this name change was then adopted by his family, Of his parents, his mother, Frances Knapp MacDowell, was by far the more influential in die development of his personality and talents. By contrast, his father, Thomas Fair MacDowell, a Manhattan milk dealer had relatively little impact on his son's career Edward began piano lessons at eight with Juan Buitrago, a Columbian emigré living with the MacDowells (later the teacher of the American violinist, Albert Spalding), and took occasional lessons from a young Venezuelan pianist, Teresa Carreno, a friend of Buitrago's. Then he studied with the Cuban pianist Pablo Desvernine, a member of Buitrago's musical circle and friend of Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
In April 1876, MacDowell and his mother, accompanied by Buitrago, went to Paris where he studied piano privately with Marmontel, spent much time composing, and attended Savard's theory classes at the Conservatory. There, early in 1877, Edward was officially matriculated. He studied piano in Marmontel's class along with young Claude Debussy and solfege with Marmontel's son Antonin. The young American even won a scholarship. But after hearing Nicolai Rubinstein perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B-flat minor the following year, MacDowell withdrew from the Conservatory to continue his piano study under German pedagogical methods with Sigmund Lebert at the Stuttgart Conservatory. Taking the advice of Carreno's first husband, the violinist Emile Sauret, the MacDowells, mother and son, went to Wiesbaden where he sought out Louis Ehlert in composition and theory and Carl Heymann in piano. Then, following Heymann to Frankfurt, where he also became a composition student of Joachim Raff at the Hoch Conservatory, MacDowell played in concert before Franz Liszt.
At the end of July 1880, he left the Conservatory and took piano students on his own, meeting his future wife, Marian Griswold Nevins, who was recommended by Raff. Early in 1881, just twenty, MacDowell was appointed a piano instructor at the Darmstadt Conservatory. It was' about this time, in 1882, at his successful performance of his First Modem Suite, recommended by Liszt to the meeting of the Allgemeine Deutscher Musikverein in Zurich, that he made the decision to devote his time to composition, his true calling. The phenomenal success of this event led to publication by Breitkopf & Hartel, again on Lizst's recommendation, of both the First and Second Modern Suites. Extensive performances by Teresa Carreno in America helped spread his name as the young American composer.
After marrying Marian Nevins, MacDowell settled for about three years (1885-1888) in Wiesbaden where the couple received among other musical friends, George Templeton Strong, Jr., George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and most importantly, Benjamin Johnson Lang, one of the arbiters of musical taste in Boston. Lang subsequently convinced MacDowell to move to the Boston area to pursue his career as a composer, performer, and teacher.
He made his American debut in Boston as composer-pianist at a Kneisel Quartet concert at Chickering Hall, November 19,1888 playing three movements from his First Modern Suite and assisting in Goldmark's Piano Quintet in B-flat. On Lang's recommendation, Wilhelm Gericke invited MacDowell to play Ids new Second Piano Concerto, Op. 23, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1889, but he actually played the work with an orchestra under Theodore Thomas in New York, s Chickering Hall on March 5, 1889, a month before the Boston concerto April 12, The conductor Frank van der Stucken invited MacDowell to play the concerto in a concert of American music at the Paris Exposition Universelle on July 12.
From that inaugural year of 1888 to 1896, when he left Boston to accept an appointment as Columbia University's first professor of music, MacDowell's successes as a virtuoso and composer continued unabated. It was during this period that most of the major works on which his reputation as a composer rests were created: Hamlet and Ophelia, Op. 22; Lancelot and Elaine, Op. 25; Six Love Songs, Op. 40; First Orchestral Suite, Op. 42;Sonata tragica, Op.45; Eight Songs, Op. 47; The Indian Suite (Second Orchestral Suite), Op. 48; Sonata eroica, Op, 50; and Woodland Sketches, Op. 51.
That MacDowell's meteoric career would not have happened as it did without the support of the two Mrs. MacDowells, mother and wife, is incontestable, As the personal secretary to Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, founder of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, of which Antonin Dvorak was Director from 1892 to 1895, MacDowell's mother was knowledgeable about Columbia's plans for starting a Department of Music. She spared no efforts in bringing to the attention of important members of the faculty and administration her son's exceptional qualifications. Despite the candidacies of such eminent men as Walter Damrosch and Henry E. Krehbiel, MacDowell was chosen for the prestigious position.
MacDowell attacked his new academic duties with a gusto and imagination that won the respect of his students and especially his colleagues, some of whom had been extremely uncomfortable about the teaching of music in a liberal arts setting. But his meticulous attention to detail had the effect of pushing his creative efforts to the background. Nevertheless, during the summers in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where the MacDowells had purchased a farm, the composer managed to produce some of his best piano music: the Sea Pieces. Op.55, the Third Sonata (Norse), Op. 57, the Fourth Sonata ('Keltic), Op. 59,'Fireside Tales, Op. 61,and New England Idyls. Op. 62, as well as a number of male choruses, Opp. 52, 54 and College Songs. He also published compositions under the pseudonym Edgar Thorn (also Thorne), whose royalties went to an old nurse of his wife, and in addition served as president of the newly formed Society of American Musicians and Composers from 1899 to 1900.
Following a clash with the new president, Nicholas Murray Butler, over the attempt to remove music from the liberal arts curriculum of Columbia University to Teachers College, MacDowell tendered his resignation in 1904. After leaving Columbia, MacDowell remained in New York, teaching privately and working on behalf of the National Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Utters (he was one of its seven founders), and the American Academy in Rome. MacDowell's mental outlook took a turn for the worse, especially after a traffic accident in which he was knocked down by a hansom cab. In December 1904 he was showing definite signs of mental illness, and by the following autumn he had regressed to a childlike state with intermittent rational periods. He died, after a long illness, from paresis (general paralytica) in Manhattan on January 23, 1908 and was interred on his Peterborough land.
When it had seemed clear that MacDowell would never recover from his extended illness, his wife Marian determined to establish the Peterborough property as a memorial to her husband by making it available to creative artists in all fields as a refuge from the vicissitudes of everyday life. Much of the subsequent history of all of the American arts may be followed by reference to the list of illustrious personalities who took advantage of Mrs. MacDowell's generosity. The fact that she outlived her husband by almost a half-century guaranteed the continuity of the Colony's original purposes and standards of excellence, based upon MacDowell's talent and interests in music as well as in other fields such as poetry, painting, and photography. Through its portals went such American artists as Edward Arlington Robinson, Thornton Wilder, Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Doris Grumbach (who wrote a widely read fictional treatment of MacDowell), Louise Talma, and Roy Harris. In this way, MacDowell's esthetic legacy reached the ever-expanding circle of American culture.