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8.559075 - MACDOWELL: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 / Hamlet and Ophelia
English 

Edward MacDowell (1860 – 1908)
Orchestral Suites Nos 1 & 2 / Hamlet and Ophelia

 

“Purely national music has no place in art. What Negro melodies have to do with American ism still remains a mystery to me. Why cover a beautiful thought with the badge of slavery rather than with the stern but at least manly and free rudeness of the North American Indian? … Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us. What we must arrive at is the youthful optimistic vitality and the undaunted tenacity of spirit that characterizes the American Man.

--Edward MacDowell


As a composer, piano virtuoso and academic, Edward MacDowel1 was the most famous American musician of a century ago. Copies of his piano miniatures such as the Woodland Sketches and New England Idylls could be found in drawing-rooms across the country and the two piano concertos and other orchestral music were standard repertoire in Symphony Hall subscription seasons. The press compared his work favourably to that of Brahms and Grieg; cultured Boston and New York audiences enthusiastically applauded his musical portraits of the New England landscape served up in a European accent with just the slightest hint of a transatlantic twang. A century on, however, and MacDowell's work is virtually unheard, eclipsed by the extraordinary originality of contemporaries like Charles Ives and Charles T. Griffes. Despite Virgil Thompson's 1971 view that MacDowell might well survive Ives, his brand of unashamedly Germanic romanticism has gone decisively out of fashion. Even as early as 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson was complaining that "The mark of American merit... 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 fine their musical craftsmanship.

Edward MacDowell was born in New York in 1860 of Anglo-Scottish ancestry. He was the son of a milk dealer and showed his musical talent early. In 1876 his mother took him to France and Germany to study -Debussy was one of his fellow students at the Paris Conservatoire -and MacDowell's composition lessons with Joachim Raff eventually brought him to the notice of Liszt. The elderly maestro was characteristically generous in his championship of the young American. On hearing his first piano concerto, he immediately recommended it to Breitkopf and Hartel for publication, an endorsement that enabled MacDowell to build a viable career composing, teaching and 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 lucrative and initially fruitful period of performance and composition, during which time MacDowell consolidated his reputation as America's leading musical figure. In 1896 he was invited to become Columbia University's first Professor of Music and his courses there seem to have been remarkably innovative and eclectic. Unfortunately, MacDowell proved temperamentally ill-suited to academic politics and was forced to resign in 1904. Shortly afterwards he was run down in the street by a horse-drawn cab and sustained brain injuries. He never recovered, gradually regressing into a childlike state and paralysis before his death in 1908 at the age of 47.

The Orchestral Suite No. 1 in D minor was begun in 1890, shortly after the MacDowells had returned from Germany, although the In October movement was not written until 1893 The premiere of the complete work was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Emil Pauer two years later The suite is designated for grosses orchester in its title, but the forces required are by no means Mahlerian in scale -double wind with piccolo, four horns and brass, timpani, cymbals, bass drum and strings Even then, the brass and extra percussion are not required in the second and fourth movements As in so much of his music, MacDowell relies heavily on literary and natural influences for the five sections of the piece. In a Haunted Forest could have come straight from the pages of a children's storybook, a wild orchestral ride full of chromatic swoops, its mysterious beginning giving way to pulsating energy. Summer Idyll and In October are contrasted nature studies, the latter jaunty with hunting-horns. The final pair of movements are respectively a gentle pastorale and a Mendelssohnian scherzo full of typically filigree 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 that MacDowell's work in general is "agreeably free of the fevers of sex".

In his book Music in a New Found Land, Wilfred Mellers describes MacDowell as a "Rip Van Winkle" composer whose best music represents a "boy's view of the American past looked back to from a premature middle age" Certainly MacDowell had no radical nationalist agenda For him, the distinction between regional and universal in musical language was purely incidental: for instance, he was scathing in response to Dvorak's suggestion that American composers might look to the black music of the South for inspiration. Nonetheless, with his lifelong fondness for fairy tales and legend, it was not long before he was tempted to mythologize North American Indian culture, and he found a reservoir of musical fragments from which to draw in 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 completed It dates from 1892 but did not receive its first performance until 1896 in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which also included MacDowell performing his own first Piano Concerto.

In many ways, the "Indian" Suite is an ambitiously 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 of a dying race" which uses material attributed by Theodore Baker to the Iroquois and Chippewa tribes. This gives way to a gentle Love Song, which apparently takes its melodic germ from the Iowas, though the opening flute solo also has rhythmic echoes of the Scotch snap. In Wartime, the lively third movement, is based on the music of the Atlantic Coast and then comes a Dirge, drawn from a woman's song of lament from the Kiowa. The elegiac mood of this music inspired one contemporary critic to describe it as "the most profoundly affecting threnody since the Gotterdammerung Trauermarsch". Certainly

MacDowell himself was proud of it; "Of all my music, the Dirge in the "Indian" pleases me most. It affects me deeply and did when I was writing it, In it a woman laments the death of her son; but to me it seemed to express a world-sorrow." The suite finishes with the vital and brilliant Village Festival, and MacDowell closes the circle with a brief reassertion of the dramatic atmosphere of the first movement.

MacDowell's earliest tone poem, Hamlet and Ophelia, was originally a pair of separate works which the composer later conflated In July 1884, the 23-year old MacDowel1 and his new wife had visited London where they saw productions of several Shakespeare plays including Hamlet, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, He was particularly impressed by the performances of Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry

Maybe because of this, MacDowell's Hamlet tone poem chooses not to depict the action of the play (unlike, say, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet) but rather gives character sketches of two of its principal characters, an attempt at psychodrama bearing very much a Lisztian hallmark. The Victorian view of Hamlet tended to be of a driven personality doomed by his circumstances to fail rather than that of a mere dreamer. Thus the maelstrom of forces at work on Hamlet's character may be detected in the unsettling chromatic passages surrounding MacDowell's slightly brash main theme Ophelia herself is seen as a key part of his psychological make-up, a lyrical and expansive string theme ushered in by horns hinting at the "Longing" motive from Wagner's Tristan und lsolde. MacDowell's portrait of Ophelia is less complex" an impressionistic movement based on the "Ophelia" theme from Hamlet with a contrasting middle section which again echoes elements of Wagner.

Hill Lloyd


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