The 'Romantic Piano Concerto' reaches its quarter century with two concertos that suffer their neglect with the least justification; indeed it's hard to see why MacDowell's Second in particular isn't up there with the Grieg as one of the most-loved nineteenth-century concertos.
Edward MacDowell was the USA's first truly major composer, but like his compatriots of the period he studied in Europe and his music stems from the nineteenth-century Germanic tradition. Both concertos are early works and the First was written while MacDowell was a student; it came to the attention of Liszt who thought very highly of it and arranged for its publication, and thus launched MacDowell's career. The composer was a very fine pianist and this shows throughout both works, which abound in virtuosity clearly designed for maximum impact. This coupled with MacDowell's melodic flair and a propensity for Scherzo-like movements results in two of the most immediately appealing works to have graced this series.
The CD is completed with the 'Second Modern Suite' for solo piano ('modern' as opposed to Baroque), a work contemporary with the concertos where the composer creates a large-scale piece, which while less integrated than a sonata is nevertheless more than a collection of character pieces.
We are delighted to welcome Seta Tanyel, who has already made many acclaimed recordings of neglected Romantic repertoire by Scharwenka and Moszkowski, on her debut with Hyperion.
Other recommended albums
Edward Alexander MacDowell is hailed as ‘America’s first important composer’. Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869) has a far stronger claim to that title, important in that he was among the earliest to use the indigenous rhythms and melodies of America in his music, indicating a direction which others ignored for nearly half a century. MacDowell, for all the quaint titles he devised, was a thoroughly, one might say completely, European composer. It is rare to find in MacDowell’s music any significant use of indigenous American themes or rhythms (though, paradoxically, his best-known piece, To a Wild Rose from ten Woodland Sketches, Op 51, makes use of a simple melody of the Brotherton Indians). True, most of his miniatures composed after 1895 take their inspiration from the fields, lakes and forests of America that MacDowell loved so very deeply, but what you are hearing when you listen to his music are richly melodic, highly poetic, superbly crafted compositions produced, had you not been told otherwise, by a greatly gifted German. The title to which MacDowell has a rightful claim is ‘the first American-born composer to have his works favourably compared with those of his European-born peers’.
MacDowell was born at 220 Clinton Street, New York, on 18 December 1860 (a surprisingly large number of sources cite 1861) to Thomas MacDowell, a Manhattan milk dealer of Scottish-Irish descent, and his artistically inclined wife. He had his first piano lessons at the age of about eight. His first three teachers were Latin-American: one Juan Buitrago (a friend of the family), Pablo Desvernine and, briefly, the great Teresa Carreño (1853– 1917), the much-married Venezuelan virtuoso who later became one of the first pianists to include MacDowell’s compositions in her programmes. In 1876 it was off to Europe with mama, then on to study with Marmontel at the Paris Conservatory where one of his fellow students was Debussy. Here he remained from February 1877 until, at odds with the teaching procedures and disappointed with his progress, he left in September 1878. (During his stay in Paris, MacDowell, a talented artist like his father, was offered a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.) Having established her son in Wiesbaden, Mrs MacDowell returned home, while Edward took lessons from Louis Ehlert (1825–1884), a former pupil of both Mendelssohn and Schumann. But it was not until he enrolled in 1879 at the newly founded and prestigious Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt that he found his first empathetic and illustrious teachers in the form of Carl Heymann (piano) and Joachim Raff (composition). Raff was a major influence in MacDowell’s life (the two became firm friends), first in the development of his compositional style and second by introducing his pupil to Liszt. The American performed part of Schumann’s Quintet in Liszt’s presence during a visit to Frankfurt by the Wizard of Weimar and, later, played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 14 to the composer.
Piano Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op 15
The concerto, so the story goes, was composed in just two weeks. It was Joachim Raff who frightened MacDowell into writing it. Calling on his American pupil one day, he asked MacDowell what work he had in hand. Standing rather in awe of Raff at that time, MacDowell without thinking blurted out that he was working on a concerto (in fact, he had no thought of doing so). Raff asked him to bring the work to him the following Sunday by which time MacDowell had just managed to write the first movement. Evading Raff until the following Sunday—still not finished!—he put him off again until the Tuesday by which time he had completed the concerto. Raff was so delighted with the results that he advised his pupil to travel to Weimar and show the work to Liszt. This MacDowell did, playing the work to the great man with Eugen d’Albert, no less, playing the orchestral part at the second piano.
The Piano Concerto in A minor is not, let us be frank, a first-rate work, especially when set beside MacDowell’s later pieces (someone once said they would give all his sonatas and both concertos for the two pages of To a Wild Rose). But, though somewhat immature, it is of more than mere academic interest and one can sense the white-hot inspiration in which it was written. After the opening maestoso chords (embellished in the otherwise unchanged edition posthumously issued in 1910), the soloist leads off into the fiery ‘Allegro con fuoco’ first movement. The end of the ‘Andante tranquillo’ second movement offers glimpses of the simple lyricism that was to be a trademark of MacDowell’s future miniatures. The confident finale (‘Presto’) in ABACA form recalls material from the first movement. Though influenced by the last movement of Grieg’s Concerto, MacDowell’s A minor has more in common with Anton Rubinstein’s showpiece concertos and, if the themes lack individuality and their handling is frequently rhetorical, it remains an effective work—one requiring a brilliant technique to bring it off convincingly.
Second Modern Suite for piano, Op 14
With Liszt’s active recommendation and encouragement, MacDowell saw his first compositions published—the First Modern Suite, Op 10, dedicated to Mrs Joachim Raff, appeared in 1882. Much of the Second Suite was composed in railway carriages while MacDowell was travelling between Frankfurt and Darmstadt in order to give lessons, occasionally venturing on to Erbach-Furstenau. MacDowell, who himself wrote much poetry, was much influenced by the English and German Romantics of the day and the score of the Second Modern Suite is headed by a quotation from Byron’s Manfred:
By a power to thee unknown
There is little in these six movements that reveals an unmistakable and individual voice—the music is too run-through with references to the masters whose music MacDowell had studied assiduously—but the themes are so attractive, the writing for the instrument so completely masterful that the Suite can easily worm its way into one’s affections. The ‘Zweite moderne Suite’ is thoroughly Teutonic from the separate titles of its movements to their musical language—the arresting ‘Fugato’ and its clear nod to Raff (who always saw fit to include a fugue in his own suites), the ‘Rhapsodie’ with its echoes of early Brahms, and the Schumannesque ‘Scherzino’, ‘March’ (Raff also liked to have a march somewhere) and ‘Phantasie-Tanz’.
Teresa Carreño gave the American premiere in New York (8 March 1884) and toured three movements (which three?) of it in the following year.
When Carl Heymann resigned his position at the Conservatory in 1881, he recommended, with Raff’s endorsement, that MacDowell should succeed him. The authorities, though, turned him down on account of his youth, but when another teaching post was offered, at Darmstadt Conservatory, MacDowell decided to prolong his European sojourn. Though he loathed the work (in a letter he described the place as ‘a dirty hole’), it was a fortunate decision for among his private pupils was Marian Nevins of Connecticut. Having returned to the United States in June 1884, they were married on 9 July. However, the couple soon returned to Germany. En route they visited England where MacDowell applied for a professorship at the Royal Academy of Music (the wife of the Principal, Lady Macfarren, ensured that he did not secure the appointment on account of his ‘youth, nationality and friendship with Liszt … who was considered too “modern”’).
The MacDowells made their home in Wiesbaden, the destination also of a number of other American composers at this time, among them Arthur Foote, George Templeton Strong, George Chadwick and Benjamin Johnson Lang. It was during the next four years that the stubborn, idealistic side of MacDowell’s personality emerged, a side that later revealed itself in an exaggerated form with tragic consequences. Composing industriously and having several of his works performed both in Europe and America did not pay the rent. MacDowell turned down his mother’s offer of financial assistance and a place at the family home to where he and his wife could return and live; The National Conservatory in New York offered him a generous five dollars an hour to teach there; this, too, was rejected as was a clerical position with the American Consulate at Crefeld, Germany.
In 1888, the MacDowells went home to the United States where, with his impeccable German credentials in the German-dominated milieu of American music, Edward was greeted as a national hero. Establishing himself in Boston, where the orchestra was conducted by the likes of the Hungarian Artur Nikisch, and Austrians Emil Paur and Wilhelm Gericke, MacDowell saw many of his works performed. He made his American debut as a pianist and composer on 19 November 1888 at a Kneisel Quartet concert playing the ‘Prelude’, ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Presto’ from his First Suite and the piano part in Goldmark’s B flat Quintet. (Incidentally, MacDowell was blessed with—or suffered from, depending on your point of view—absolute pitch. On one occasion he was playing the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and “got through it with the greatest difficulty”, the piano being at a pitch to which he was not accustomed. Having to play the piece in one key and hearing it in another, he said, “nearly knocked me out”.)
Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor, Op 23
The first major piano concerto written by an American, MacDowell’s D minor is one of the finest and most accomplished works of its kind. It has survived its composer’s dwindling reputation, his only large-scale work to remain in the active repertoire and also his most frequently played work in any form. Though traditional in many respects, it is quite distinctive and, in the words of one writer, with this single work ‘ensured his niche in the gallery of immortals’.
The first movement (‘Larghetto calmato’) opens pp and closes ppp. In between, the music surges ecstatically to a series of crescendos in the best Romantic tradition. The brilliant ‘Presto giocoso’ Scherzo (second movement), sometimes heard separately, was inspired, according to Marian MacDowell, by Ellen Terry’s portrayal of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Immediately after her performance in London, MacDowell dashed home and sketched the movement for two pianos, entitling it originally ‘Benedick’. The third movement (‘Largo – Molto allegro’), unusually in 3/4 time, makes forceful use of the brass section and harks back to themes from the first movement, with MacDowell’s gorgeous melodies and sparkling writing for the soloist providing a thrilling finale.
It was the German-born conductor Theodore Thomas who conducted the New York Philharmonic and the composer in the world premiere of the Second Concerto on 5 March 1889 at Chickering Hall, New York. The Tribune critic, H E Krehbiel, asserted that the concerto ‘must be placed at the head of all works of its kind produced by either a native or adopted citizen of America’ confessing that he ‘derived keener pleasure from the work of the young American than from the experienced and famous Russian’ (Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony had received its New York premiere on the same programme). One of the most notable triumphs of MacDowell’s career was when he played his Second Concerto with the Philharmonic Society of New York on 14 December 1894 under the baton of Anton Seidl when he received ‘a tremendous ovation such as was accorded only to a popular prima donna at the opera, or to a famous virtuoso of international reputation’. The critic Henry T Finck described MacDowell’s playing as of ‘that splendid kind of virtuosity which makes one forget the technique’. The Second Piano Concerto was first recorded by Jesus Maria Sanroma in 1934 with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler.
The next few years found MacDowell at the height of his powers, in demand everywhere (he played his Second Concerto at the great Paris Exposition of 1889) and composing prolifically. From this period come his Woodland Sketches, two of his four sonatas (the ‘Tragica’ and ‘Eroica’), two orchestral suites, his Six Love Songs, Op 40, and Eight Songs, Op 47. He conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club, was made president of the newly formed Society of American Musicians and Composers and, named as ‘the greatest musical genius America has produced’, was installed as the first head of the music department at Columbia University in 1896.
That same year, the MacDowells moved from Boston to New York to take up his post and, as a summer residence, bought an estate near Peterborough in the south of the state of New Hampshire. In addition to a music room connected by a passage to the house, a log cabin was built in the woods nearby. Here MacDowell composed some of his most popular works. The University soon proved to be laborious work. Mrs MacDowell explained in a letter: ‘In taking the position of Professor of Music at Columbia University, Mr MacDowell went into an environment quite different from anything he had ever experienced before. He had no University training, no knowledge of its methods.’ After a sabbatical year in 1902/03 during which he performed his works throughout the United States, Canada and in London, MacDowell returned to Columbia to discover that the University had moved in a direction of which he profoundly disapproved. The public clashes with the University’s new president, Nicholas Murray Butler, made headline news with MacDowell charging Butler and Columbia with ‘materialism’, Butler accusing MacDowell of neglecting his duties. Unsuited to academic life, unable to understand the exigencies of the American education system and unhappy at his inability to influence policy-making, MacDowell resigned from his post in 1904. The affair, embarrassing for the University, had a devastating effect on MacDowell. It left him emotionally shattered and he began to develop moods of extreme irritability and depression. This is demonstrated in the following letter he wrote to the distinguished Austrian conductor Felix Mottl. On a visit to America, Mottl had decided, as a friendly gesture to his hosts, to put on a concert devoted entirely to music by American composers. Shortly before the event, MacDowell got to hear of it:
Feb 13, 1904
This denial of the existence of ‘national’ music was, indeed, something that MacDowell had preached for years. His argument was that his use of American Indian themes in, for instance, his Second Indian Suite, Op 48 (1897), did not make the work any more ‘American’ than did the material for his ‘Norse’ Piano Sonata, Op 57 (1900), make it ‘Norwegian’. (The novelist Upton Sinclair, who attended MacDowell’s music appreciation course at Columbia University in 1899, has said that MacDowell always challenged his students to attempt, however unsuccessfully, to guess at the extra-musical associations in his music.) But was this rooted in his sheer inability to reflect America, Norway or anywhere else in musical terms unless it was through German eyes, an acknowledgement that his music was derivative of earlier masters? Is there the hint of insecurity here, an inferiority complex? It is interesting that after a performance of his D minor Concerto in London in 1903, MacDowell was asked to give a recital of his own compositions, but on seeing the recital list at Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall he ‘characteristically decided that nobody would want to hear his music after all the other pianists had played’. At any rate, MacDowell began to convince himself that his life was a failure.
The letter to Mottl illustrates his state of mind during the period of his public squabble with Nicholas Murray Butler. Shortly after this and following his resignation from Columbia, in the winter of 1904 MacDowell was knocked down by a hansom cab in New York. The injury he suffered, coupled with insomnia, anxiety attacks and depression led him to retire to his Peterborough home. Over the next few years he lapsed into total insanity. Every written description of his mental illness alludes to ‘brain trouble’, ‘paresis’, ‘degenerative mental state’, ‘cerebral collapse’ or other non-specific terms. In truth, the only possible medical diagnoses are pre-senile dementia (which can strike fatally before the age of fifty) or, more likely, syphilis, though there is no evidence for the latter.
Victor Herbert, Arthur Foote, Andrew Carnegie, J Pierpoint Morgan and former President Grover Cleveland were among those who contributed funds to an appeal in 1906 to help MacDowell. ‘Slowly, but with terrible sureness,’ wrote one visitor to Peterborough, ‘his brain-power was beginning to crumble away and his mind became as that of a child. Day after day he would sit near a window, turning over the pages of his beloved books of fairy-tales, an infinitely moving and tragic figure’. The word ‘paralysis’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘secret undoing’. That is what happened to Edward Alexander MacDowell’s brain: it became secretly undone. He died in the Westminster Hotel, New York, at 9 o’clock on the evening of 23 January 1908 at the age of forty-seven.
‘Few composers have been so idolised in their lifetime’, says former critic of the New York Times Harold Schonberg, comparing him with Elgar’s similar position in England. ‘He was firmly believed to be the equal of any composer anywhere.’ So, despite no new music having appeared since 1902 and his disappearance from public view, such was MacDowell’s fame at his death that $50,000 had been raised for the MacDowell Memorial Association. Marian MacDowell deeded to the Association the Peterborough estate allowing composers and writers to spend their summers working there undisturbed, paying a minimum for rent and food. Led by her, the MacDowell Colony thrived while, despite her unflagging efforts, her husband’s music was forgotten with devastating speed. Marian MacDowell outlived her husband by nearly half a century, dying in 1956 at the age of ninety-nine.
The MacDowell Colony still flourishes. Since its foundation, over four thousand artists have worked there in its thirty-two separate cottages, among them Milton Avery, James Baldwin, Jules Feiffer, Frances Fitzgerald, Oscar Hijuelos, Arthur Kopit, Studs Terkel, Barbara Tuchman, and Alice Walker. Aaron Copland composed parts of Appalachian Spring at the Colony; Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town; Virgil Thomson worked on Mother of Us All; Leonard Bernstein completed his Mass. ‘Colonists’ have been Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Rome Prize winners and Guggenheim, Fulbright, and MacArthur Fellows. In 1997, The MacDowell Colony was awarded the National Medal of Arts for ‘nurturing and inspiring many of this century’s finest artists’.
Jeremy Nicholas © 2001
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