Piano Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op. 15
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op. 23
Witches' Dance for piano and orchestra Op. 17, No.2
Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 35
'The great young American Composer will not appearsuddenly out of the West with an immortal masterpiece under his arm but willcome instead out of a long line of lesser men - half geniuses perhaps - who'llprepare the way'
Edward MacDowel1 was born in New York in 1860. During hislifetime he was widely regarded as the most important American composer of theday. He had studied composition in Germany with Raff, was feted as a pianovirtuoso whose skills were admired by Liszt and eventually became Columbia University'sfirst Professor of Music. There he established a reputation as an inspiring andinnovative teacher, but in 1904 was forced to resign after disagreements over thecontents of the courses. Shortly afterwards he was run over in a Boston streetby a horse-drawn cab and sustained head injuries. The accident probably hastenedhis premature death at the age of 47. His widow established a retreat forartists and musicians at their summer house in Peterborough, New Hampshire andthe MacDowell Colony has since provided working space for generations of Americanmusicians including Virgil Thompson, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland (whocomposed parts of Appalachian Spring there).
MacDowell's reputation barely survived his death, despitethe immense popularity of miniatures like To a Wild Rose which can still befound in thousands of piano stools across America. As so often, the new avant gardehad little time for work by the preceding generation and MacDowell, in commonwith other Romantic composer/pianists like Rubinstein and Rachmaninov, sufferedthe backlash. In MacDowell's case, this neglect was compounded by criticismsthat his work possessed no particularly national style or innovation despiteits undoubted fine craftsmanship. For decades only the two piano concertosretained even a tentative foothold in the repertoire. Nearly a century later,however, his skilful and profoundly atmospheric music is finally beingrediscovered.
As early as 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson had complained that'the mark of American merit... seems to be a certain grace without grandeur,not new but derivative, a vase of fair outline but empty'. During the 1890sDvorak had called on American composers to turn to their ethnic folk musicroots for inspiration - i.e. plantation spirituals and songs of the Indiantribes - but nationalism for its own sake cut little ice with MacDowell.
'Purely national music has no place in art. What Negromelodies have to do with Americanism still remains a mystery to me.
This inevitably meant continuing to draw from Europeanmodels. MacDowell's family came from Irish/Scottish roots. His mother hadencouraged the boy's prodigious talents, organized occasional lessons for himwith the great Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno and eventually took him to Francewhen he was fifteen to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Marmontel (one ofhis fellow students there was Debussy).
MacDowell, however was uncomfortable in Paris. Maybe hehad difficulty with understanding lectures in French - in any event, afterhearing Anton Rubinstein play Tchaikovsky's new B flat Concerto, hepersuaded his mother that he would never acquire that level of virtuosity inFrance and so they moved on to Germany, where he studied composition withJoseph Joachim Raff and piano with Carl Heymann It was a propitious move Raffwas well connected and impressed by the young American's abilities. The writingof the First Piano Concerto seems to have been particularly fluent:
'Raff abruptly asked me what I'd been writing. I, scarcelyrealising what I was saying, stammered out that I had a concerto He walked outon the landing and turned back, telling me to bring it to him the next Sunday.
In desperation, not having the remotest idea how I was to accomplish such atask, I worked like a beaver Sunday came and I only had the first movementcomposed. I wrote him a note making some wretched excuse and he put it offuntil the Sunday after. Something happened then and he put it off another twodays more; by that time I had the concerto ready.'
Raff sent MacDowell off to Weimar to perform the piece toLiszt in the spring of 1882 with Eugene d' Albert playing the second pianopart. Liszt, by now Europe's musical elder statesman and an uncanny spotter ofyoung talent, was encouraging both the young composer's skill and his pianoplaying. He arranged public performances of MacDowell's earlier music andvirtually instructed Breitkopf and Hartel to publish the concerto. It was aconsiderable compliment for the 22-year-old composer and MacDowel1 gave the firstperformance of the piece to great acclaim in Zurich later that year. The workis in three movements, the opening cadenza, without orchestral accompaniment,making an uncompromising announcement of MacDowell's keyboard dexterity. Theslow movement is based entirely on one gentle, folk-like melody, reminiscent ofGrieg in its delicate scoring, with a central pastoral section brought into reliefby forest calls from the horns. The last is marked Presto - a wickedlydifficult romp for the soloist - which must have awakened barnstorming memoriesfor the elderly Liszt in its section marked impetuoso e rapido possibile
and in the helter-skelter prestissimo with which the work ends.
In 1884, MacDowel1 secretly married one of his pianostudents, Marian Nevins, and they settled for three years in Wiesbaden where hestarted work on a second concerto. In the meantime both Raff and Liszt had diedand in 1888 MacDowel1 was persuaded to return home, rather unwillingly forcedto supplement his composing income with a return to the concert platform.
At one recital an observant member of the Boston audiencenoted that 'his finger velocity was the most striking characteristic of hisplaying. For him it was a mere bagatelle. He took to prestissimo like a duck towater. He could in fact play fast more easily than he could slowly.'
The first performance of the Second Concerto took placein Chickering Hall, New York on 5th March 1889 in a concert which also includedthe American premiere of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. One critic praised'a splendid composition, so full of poetry , so full of vigour as to tempt theassertion that it must be placed at the head of all works of its kind producedby a native or adopted citizen of America.' He claimed to have enjoyed it farmore than the new symphony. The work was dedicated to MacDowell's old teacher, TeresaCarreno, whose colourful life included successful careers as a conductor andopera singer as well as concert pianist, while multiple marriages (includingone to Eugene d' Albert) kept her name constantly in the papers. She would nodoubt have approved of the unconventional structure of the pie