Edward MacDowell (1860 - 1908)
Orchestral Suites Nos 1 & 2 / Hamlet and Ophelia
\Purely national music has no place in art. What Negromelodies have to do with American ism still remains a mystery to me. Why covera beautiful thought with the badge of slavery rather than with the stern but atleast manly and free rudeness of the North American Indian? ... Masquerading inthe so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia willnot help us. What we must arrive at is the youthful optimistic vitality and theundaunted tenacity of spirit that characterizes the American Man."
As a composer, piano virtuoso and academic, EdwardMacDowel1 was the most famous American musician of a century ago. Copies of hispiano miniatures such as the Woodland Sketches and New England Idylls
could be found in drawing-rooms across the country and the two piano concertosand other orchestral music were standard repertoire in Symphony Hallsubscription seasons. The press compared his work favourably to that of Brahmsand Grieg; cultured Boston and New York audiences enthusiastically applaudedhis musical portraits of the New England landscape served up in a European accentwith just the slightest hint of a transatlantic twang. A century on, however,and MacDowell's work is virtually unheard, eclipsed by the extraordinary originalityof contemporaries like Charles Ives and Charles T. Griffes. Despite VirgilThompson's 1971 view that MacDowell might well survive Ives, his brand ofunashamedly Germanic romanticism has gone decisively out of fashion. Even asearly as 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson was complaining that "The mark of Americanmerit... seems to be a certain grace without grandeur, not new but derivative,a vase of fair outline but empty." American composers, it was long ago decided,are not meant to sound like Europeans, whatever their roots and however finetheir musical craftsmanship.
Edward MacDowell was born in New York in 1860 ofAnglo-Scottish ancestry. He was the son of a milk dealer and showed his musicaltalent early. In 1876 his mother took him to France and Germany to study-Debussy was one of his fellow students at the Paris Conservatoire -andMacDowell's composition lessons with Joachim Raff eventually brought him to thenotice of Liszt. The elderly maestro was characteristically generous in hischampionship of the young American. On hearing his first piano concerto, heimmediately recommended it to Breitkopf and Hartel for publication, anendorsement that enabled MacDowell to build a viable career composing, teachingand performing in Germany. In 1884 he secretly married one of his students,Marian Nevins. They returned to the United States four years later to a lucrativeand initially fruitful period of performance and composition, during which timeMacDowell consolidated his reputation as America's leading musical figure. In1896 he was invited to become Columbia University's first Professor of Musicand his courses there seem to have been remarkably innovative and eclectic.
Unfortunately, MacDowell proved temperamentally ill-suited to academic politicsand was forced to resign in 1904. Shortly afterwards he was run down in thestreet by a horse-drawn cab and sustained brain injuries. He never recovered,gradually regressing into a childlike state and paralysis before his death in1908 at the age of 47.
The Orchestral Suite No. 1 in D minor was begun in1890, shortly after the MacDowells had returned from Germany, although the InOctober movement was not written until 1893 The premiere of the complete work wasgiven by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Emil Pauer two years later Thesuite is designated for grosses orchester in its title, but the forcesrequired are by no means Mahlerian in scale -double wind with piccolo, fourhorns and brass, timpani, cymbals, bass drum and strings Even then, the brassand extra percussion are not required in the second and fourth movements As inso much of his music, MacDowell relies heavily on literary and naturalinfluences for the five sections of the piece. In a Haunted Forest couldhave come straight from the pages of a children's storybook, a wild orchestralride full of chromatic swoops, its mysterious beginning giving way to pulsatingenergy. Summer Idyll and In October are contrasted naturestudies, the latter jaunty with hunting-horns. The final pair of movements arerespectively a gentle pastorale and a Mendelssohnian scherzo full of typicallyfiligree woodwind instrumentation laid over a gathering accelerando.
MacDowell's first biographer describes the suite, rather approvingly, as"fastidious" music and elsewhere makes the intriguing observation thatMacDowell's work in general is "agreeably free of the fevers of sex".
In his book Music in a New Found Land, Wilfred Mellersdescribes MacDowell as a "Rip Van Winkle" composer whose best musicrepresents a "boy's view of the American past looked back to from apremature middle age" Certainly MacDowell had no radical nationalistagenda For him, the distinction between regional and universal in musicallanguage was purely incidental: for instance, he was scathing in response to Dvorak'ssuggestion that American composers might look to the black music of the Southfor inspiration. Nonetheless, with his lifelong fondness for fairy tales andlegend, it was not long before he was tempted to mythologize North AmericanIndian culture, and he found a reservoir of musical fragments from which to drawin Theodore Baker's book Music of the North American Wilderness.
Although published as Opus 48, the "Indian"Suite was actually the first of the two orchestral suites to be completedIt dates from 1892 but did not receive its first performance until 1896 in aconcert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which also included MacDowellperforming his own first Piano Concerto.
In many ways, the "Indian" Suite is anambitiously symphonic piece of work for a composer who was better known for(and temperamentally suited to) miniatures. The first movement, Legend,sets the tone, a grandiose and stormy evocation of the "once-great past ofa dying race" which uses material attributed by Theodore Baker to theIroquois and Chippewa tribes. This gives way to a gentle Love Song,which apparently takes its melodic germ from the Iowas, though the openingflute solo also has rhythmic echoes of the Scotch snap. In Wartime, thelively third movement, is based on the music of the Atlantic Coast and thencomes a Dirge, drawn from a woman's song of lament from the Kiowa. Theelegiac mood of this music inspired one contemporary critic to describe it as"the most profoundly affecting threnody since the Gotterdammerung Trauermarsch".
MacDowell himself was proud of it; "Of all my music,the Dirge in the "Indian" pleases me most. It affects me deeplyand did when I was writing it, In it a woman laments the death of her son; butto me it seemed to express a world-sorrow." The suite finishes with the vitaland brilliant Village Festival, and MacDowell closes the circle with abrief reassertion of the dramatic a