Edward Alexander MacDowell

1860 1908

Edward Alexander MacDowell

Composer

Biography

Edward MacDowell was an American composer of the Romantic era, best remembered for his piano works. Strongly influenced by Romantic literature, landscapes and Norse and Celtic legends, his piano works are full of music’s expressive powers and possess a strong sense of melody. He was the most widely-known American-born composer of his era, both in America and in Europe, whereFranz Liszt held him in high regard during his formative years.

Edward MacDowell was born in New York in 1860. MacDowell was artistically inclined from a very young age, showing signs of talent in drawing and music. Aged eight he began piano lessons with the Colombian violinist Juan Buitrago. It was through Buitrago that he met the Venezuelan pianist, opera singer, composer and conductor Teresa Carreño who gave him piano lessons and a great deal of encouragement. She would continue to be a strong promoter of his work, leading him to later dedicate his Second Piano Concerto to her.

Aged 16, MacDowell went to Paris with his mother, to begin studying at the Paris Conservatoire with Marmontel, an arrangement that didn’t last very long as he was dissatisfied with Marmontel’s piano instruction. He soon moved to Germany to study in Stuttgart, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, he studied piano with Carl Heymann and composition withJoachim Raff at the Hoch Konservatorium. MacDowell had the opportunity to perform for Franz Liszt at conservatory concerts several times during his studies there, which is responsible for a considerable leap forward in his career.

Between 1880 and 1885, by which time his formal studies had ended, MacDowell made a living by giving private piano lessons as well as spending one year on the teaching faculty at Städtische Akademie für Tonkunst in Darmstadt. MacDowell continued to stay in contact with his former composition teacher Joachim Raff, who encouraged him to send hisErste moderne Suite op. 10 to Liszt. The outcome was successful: Liszt recommended the work to be performed and published, launching MacDowell’s success as a composer.Erste moderne Suite op. 10 was performed at the 1882 meeting of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein and published by Breitkopf and Härtel.

Soon, other publishing companies in Germany were publishing his works and they spread farther afield. In 1883, Teresa Carreño performed hisModern Suiten across the United States.

In 1884, MacDowell married a fellow American, Marian Nevins. The couple lived in Frankfurt, followed by a short period of time in Wiesbaden, before returning back to the United States in 1888 to live in Boston. By now MacDowell was focused heavily on composition and dedicated a lot of time to giving public performances of his works, which raised his artistic profile higher than ever before. His orchestral works began to be picked up by the foremost orchestras and conductors of the time. A year after settling back in Boston, he gave the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in New York, conducted by Theodore Thomas and another performance of the same work was soon given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A major highlight of his career was a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York of his Indian Suite and his First Piano Concerto (with MacDowell himself at the piano) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January 1896. His composition was very well received in the public forum, as was his piano playing. Soon, this reputation led to a position at Columbia University, as the institution’s first ever professor of music.

He moved to New York in 1896 to take up the position at Columbia, as well as continuing to give private piano lessons and piano concerts. He also became president of the Society of American Musicians and Composers and conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club. Due to his busy work schedule, he only had time for composition on summer holidays, but nevertheless, he composed many fine piano pieces, partsongs and solo songs.

MacDowell gave many lectures at Columbia, presented as Critical and Historical Essays,which were published after his death. In one lecture about music’s expressive ability, he described it as “a language, but a language of the intangible, a kind of soul-language", although he was inclined not to follow abstract forms for their own sake.

MacDowell composed in various large-scale forms, from symphonic poems to concertos, but his most individual voice is imbued in his short piano works which show subtle nuances and evocative meanings.

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