Edward MacDowell was the leading American Romantic composer, a major international figure in his time, though now largely forgotten.
Born in New York in 1860 into a Quaker family of Scottish, Irish and English descent, he showed early talent as a pianist; the Venezuelan virtuoso Teresa Carreño gave him some lessons, and remained a friend. For any ambitious young American musician at that time, the obligatory next step was Europe, and at 16 MacDowell set off to study in Paris. But, dissatisfied with the teaching at the Conservatoire, he moved on to Stuttgart, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt - where the Principal of the Hoch Conservatorium, the celebrated Joachim Raff, encouraged him to concentrate on composition.
After completing his formal studies in 1880, he remained in Germany, teaching the piano and composing prolifically; the support of Liszt led to the performance and publication of a number of his works.
MacDowell finally returned to the USA in 1888, settling in Boston and rapidly establishing himself not only as a composer but also as a pianist. In 1896 he was invited to become the first professor of music at Columbia University in New York; but the demands of academic administration, and frustration at his inability to realise his high ideals, led to his resignation in 1904. The resulting furore, and an accident in which he was knocked down by a hansom cab, seem to have precipitated a steep mental decline, leading to his death in January 1908, shortly after his 47th birthday.
Following his death, his widow made over his estate in rural New Hampshire to become the MacDowell Colony; this has offered short-term residencies in sympathetic surroundings to, by now, thousands of writers, artists and composers.
MacDowell's music belongs to the European Romantic mainstream; although he occasionally used Native American melodies, he was not an advocate of American musical nationalism. Aaron Copland, a member of a later generation with very different concerns, nevertheless wrote appreciatively of his 'sensitive and individual poetic gift, and a special turn of harmony of his own'.
He composed two piano concertos, the second of them a work of great originality and effectiveness, and for orchestra alone four symphonic poems and two suites. He also wrote numerous sets of songs and part-songs. But the bulk of his output consists of music for solo piano: four sonatas, two 'Modern Suites', sets of studies, and many collections of shorter pieces, which include the handful of treasurable miniatures that chiefly keep his name alive today.
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The MacDowell Colony
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