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8.559019 - MACDOWELL: Piano Sonata No. 4 / 6 Poems / 12 Virtuoso Studies
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) Piano Music Volume 3
Edward MacDowell was born in New York City on 18th December 1860, of Quaker descent. His father was a skilled draftsman and his mother a talented artist and it was from his Scottish-Irish ancestry that MacDowell inherited an absorbing interest in legend and poetry which coloured all of his later life. He began his study of the piano when very young and one of his first teachers was the Venezuelan-born pianist and composer Teresa Carrefio, at one time celebrated as the greatest woman pianist in the world. Soon after his tenth birthday, he was taken on a tour of Europe by his mother and when he was fifteen returned there to study piano and composition, attending for a time the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a fellow pupil of Claude Debussy. Later he went to Stuttgart and to Frankfurt, in the latter city winning the high regard of his teacher, Joachim Raff, who brought his compositions to the attention of Franz Liszt, then the most influential person in European musical life. By the time he was eighteen MacDowell had acquired a mastery of the techniques of composition of unusual maturity. This is illustrated in his Piano Concerto in A minor in the piano-writing and its orchestral accompaniment, a work he wrote in three weeks, just before his eighteenth birthday. It was this dazzlingly brilliant composition that the young composer carried with him on the occasion of his memorable visit to Liszt.
At twenty MacDowell began teaching the piano privately in Frankfurt, where one of his most talented students was Marian Nevins of New London, Connecticut, who in 1884 became his wife. In 1888 the couple returned to America, making their home in Boston unti11896, when he was called to Columbia University to establish a chair in music, a post he retained until his resignation in 1904. During the years which followed, many of MacDowell's finest compositions were written at Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he and his wife had bought a farm homestead of the Revolutionary Period. The house, a sturdy dwelling put together in the olden style, with hand-made nails and birch-bark lining the walls between the boards and shingles, had retained its original form and the MacDowells did little to change it. The first addition was a music-room, built on to the north of the house, but the following year Mrs MacDowell surprised her husband by having erected, at what was then the edge of their property, the famous Log Cabin studio. MacDowell afterwards spent many hours each day in the restful and inspiring seclusion of his "House o’ Dreams".
The years immediately following his resignation from Columbia brought MacDowell growing nervous strain and illness. He died in New York City on 23rd January 1908. At the funeral service held in St George's Church in Stuyvesant Square, tribute was paid by the greatest musicians and musical organizations of the nation. The Mendelssohn Glee Club, of which MacDowell had once served as conductor, sang Integer Vitae; W.H. Humiston, at the organ, played the Andante from the composer's own Sonata Tragica, and the Dirge from his Indian Suite was performed under the direction of Sam Franko. The following day the composer was laid to rest in his own grounds in Peterborough. Just across the fields from the "Hillcrest" house, not too far from the Log Cabin, is the grave, marked by a huge boulder below, with a bronze tablet placed there by the Boston MacDowell Club.
MacDowell composed his Sonata No.4 “Keltic”; Opus 59 in 1901, dedicating it to Edvard Orieg, to whom he also dedicated his Sonata No.3 “Norse”. According to his first biographer, Lawrence Oilman, in the publication of the Keltic Sonata, "MacDowell achieved a conclusive demonstration of his capacity as a creative musician of unquestionable importance. Never before had he given so convincing an earnest of the larger aspect of his genius: neither in the three earlier sonatas, in the Sea Pieces nor in the "Indian " Suite, had he attained an equal magnitude, and equal scope and significance. Nowhere else in his work are the distinguishing traits of his genius so strikingly disclosed - the breadth and reach of imagination, the magnetic vitality, the richness and fervour, the conquering poetic charm. Here you will find a beauty which is as 'the beauty of the men that take up spears and die for a name: no less than the beauty of the poets that take up harp and sorrow and the wondering road' - a harp shaken with a wild and piercing music, a sorrow that is not of today, but of a past when dreams were actual and imperishable, and men lived the tales of beauty and of wonder which now are but a discredited and fading memory."
On the face page of the Sonata, MacDowell wrote a poetic motto:
At the time of publication he wrote to Oilman, "Here is the sonata, which it is a pleasure to me to offer you as a token of sympathy, I enclose also some lines [of his own verse] anent Cuchullin, which, however, do not entirely fit the music, and which I hope to use in another musical form. They may serve, however, to aid the understanding of the stimmung of the sonata. Cuchullin's story is in touch with the Deirdre-Naesi tale; and, as with my 3rd Sonata, the music is more a commentary on the subject than an actual depiction of it." Gilman explains that "it is the Gaelic world that MacDowell has made to live again in his music: that miraculous world of stupendous passions and aspirations, of bards and heroes and great adventure - the world of Cuchullin the Unconquerable, and Laeg, and Queen Maeve; of Naesi, and Deirdre the Beautiful, and Fergus, and Connla the Harper, and those kindred figures in the world's mythologies."
"The Fourth Sonata", he continues, "marks the consummation of MacDowell's evolution toward the acme of powerful expression. It is cast in a mould essentially heroic; it has its moods of tenderness, of insistent sweetness, but these are incidental: the governing mood is signified in the tremendous exordium with which the work opens, and which is sustained, with few deviations, throughout the work. Deirdre he has realised exquisitely in his middle movement: that is her image, in all its fragrant loveliness. MacDowell has limned her musically in a manner worthy of comparison with the sumptuous pen-portrait of her in Standish O'Grady's Cuculain: 'a woman of wondrous beauty, bright gold her hair, eyes piercing and splendid, tongue full of sweet sounds, her countenance like the colour of snow blended with crimson'. In the close of the last movement we are justified in seeing a translation of the sublime tradition of Cuchullin's death. The manner of the hero's death is thus described by Standish O'Grady: 'Cuculain sprang forth, but as he sprang, Lewy MacConroi pierced him through the bowels. Then fell the great hero of the Gael. Thereat the sun darkened, the earth trembled... when, with a crash, fell that pillar of heroism, and that flame of the warlike valour of Erin was extinguished... Then Cuculain, raising his eyes, saw thence northwards from the lake a tall pillar-stone, the grave of a warrior slain there in some ancient war. With difficulty he reached it and he leaned awhile against the pillar, for his mind wandered, and he knew nothing for a space. After that he took off his brooch, and removing the torn bratta [girdle], he passed it round the top of the pillar, where there was an indentation in the stone, and passed the ends under his arms and around his breast, tying with languid hands a loose knot, which soon was made fast by the weight of the dying hero; thus they beheld him standing with the drawn sword in his hand, and the rays of the setting sun bright on his panic-striking helmet. So stood Cuculain, even in death-pangs, a terror to his enemies, for a deep spring of stern valour was opened in his soul, and the might of his unfathomable spirit sustained him. Thus perished Cuculain...' Splendid as this is, it is paralleled by MacDowell's tone-picture. That, for nobility of conception, for majestic solemnity and pathos, is a musical performance which measures up to the level of superlative achievements."
In his early life, Edward MacDowell wrote a number of short compositions under the nom de plume of Edgar Thorn (Thorne). The Forgotten Fairy Tales, Opus 4 were published in 1897 and "to Mrs Edward MacDowell respectfully dedicated." In her Random Notes on Edward MacDowell and his Music, Marian MacDowell (Mrs Edward MacDowell) comments on this set of four piano pieces: "The first number (Sung Outside the Prince's Door) perhaps suggested the name "Forgotten Fairy Tales" for this collection of pieces. It is difficult to identify the title with any particular story, and since MacDowell was a great lover of fairy-tales and folk-lore he may have drawn his inspiration from some half-remembered source or from some fanciful tale suggested by his own lively imagination. Whatever the origin of the piece, its interpretation is adequately implied by its title, its songful character, and the composer's helpful marks of expression." Of a Tailor and a Bear is a clever musical portrayal of an old folktale of a tailor, who was such a lover of music that he always kept his violin beside him as he worked. One day as he was busily working, he heard a great commotion on the street, and suddenly a big bear appeared in his doorway. Although he was very badly frightened, the tailor remembered that bears love music; so he began to play and the bear was so delighted that he began to dance. Soon the keeper came and led the dancing bear away, and the tailor, much relieved, settled down to his work. According to Mrs MacDowell: "One can easily find themes in the music that suggest the bravado of the tailor, the bear's awkward tricks, his heavy-footed prowling, and stumbling retreat down the stairs... Beauty in the Rose Garden comes from the well-known tale of Beauty and the Beast wherein Beauty's pity and kindness turn the Beast into a handsome and princely husband for her. The two themes portraying Beauty and the Beast are well contrasted in the music... From Dwarf-Land is not based on a fairy-tale but rather portrays those grotesque, somewhat malicious little people, who were accused of all sorts of evil tricks such as changing children at birth and injuring animals. They were feared instead of loved, as were the fairies, and to appease their anger food and drink were sometimes left on the doorsteps for them. In this piece they seem bent on some particularly gleeful pranks."
Six Poems after Heine, Opus 31 were written in 1887. MacDowell revised the pieces in 1898 and in 1901 issued the six poems with his own English translations.
MacDowell composed his Twelve Virtuoso Studies Opus 46 in 1894. According to Lawrence Gilman "with Opus 46 we come to a stage of MacDowell's development in which, for the first time, he presents himself as an assured and confident master of musical impressionism and the possessor of a matured and fully individualised style." Each of the twelve studies is prefaced with a title, giving the works the quality of tone-poems. The first, Novelette, has been described as "freely communicative and subjective". It is the grand opening to the set, Schumannesque and confident. The second, Moto pelpetuo, is a perpetual motion study, perhaps intended to be a tribute to Weber, whose own Perpetuum Mobile was a popular encore piece. Wilde Jagd (Wild Chase) is a musical picture of a wild hunt through the woods, perhaps influenced by Liszt's study, Wilde Jagd, or the literary influence of the chase in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In MacDowell's study the listener is at once plunged into the excitement of the chase, the onward rush, attack wild lunges at the prey and the hunting-song, all are there making the blood tingle. Improvisation is very close to a true improvisation, giving an unusually graphic impression of the pianist sitting idly at the keyboard, pouring out heartfelt sentiment in a splendid surge of notes. MacDowell was an imaginative and romantic composer and felt deeply the emotions aroused by music, one of the most beautiful of which is expressed in this little masterpiece. Elfentanz (The Elfin Dance) is a splendid tone picture of mischievous fairies with magical powers dancing. Valse triste is a languorous dance, perhaps recalled in a distant memory or in a dream. Burleske is a glimpse of a nineteenth-century parody or comedy revue. In MacDowell's hands it is humorous, skittish and fickle, and before we know what hit us, it is over. Bluette is a French term for a short, ""flashing" or "sparkling" piece of music. In MacDowell's study the sparkle has some melancholy moments. Träumerei (Dreaming) also brings a feeling of lightness and languor not present in Schumann's better known piece of the same name. The tenth etude Märzwind (March Wind), fierce and strong, has the march wind blowing in fitful gusts, wailing as if in mourning for the Summer's dead, "nature's funeral cries for what has been and what is not."
There is strange music in its stirring whirl and tumult, and this sensitive composer, whose ears were attuned to nature's many voices, re-creates the mood and weird beauty of the maddened air. In MacDowell's Impromptu we sense a musical nod to Chopin and Schubert. In 1573 a young French Prince, Henri d' Anjou, was crowned King of Poland at Cracow, then the Polish capital. The ceremony was one of great magnificence, for Poland was then at the height of her power, wealth and splendour. All the great lords of the realm with their ladies were present, arrayed in barbaric oriental magnificence, and, moving in glittering procession, were presented to the new King by the Master of Ceremonies. The music for this procession, composed for the occasion, was the first >Polonaise. It was doubtless march-like in character with stirring rhythm and majestic tonal glory, music that embodied the national character of the Polish people. MacDowell's Polonaise is as stern and indignant a protest against tyranny as Chopin himself might have written. The pages in which the music takes on a lighter colour are suggested abandonment to gaiety, even in the face of inevitable disaster, the guillotine or Siberian exile. Just before the noble first theme returns there is a long, wild sweeping figure, like a bitter wind from the northern steppes hurling itself against the castle walls or moaning among its towers and courts. Were he indeed a son of Poland, MacDowell could not have expressed with greater sympathy that part of the story of her tragedy which has inspired one of his finest compositions.
Victor and Marina Ledin
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