|About this Recording
8.223631 - MACDOWELL: Woodland Sketches / Fireside Tales / New England Idyls
Edward MacDowell (1860–1908)
New York is more often the Mecca for artists rather than the birthplace, but in the case of Edward MacDowell it can boast a geographic claim to both his nativity and death. Edward MacDowell was born on December study of music at the piano keyboard at an early age. the tutelage of an old family friend Juan Buitrago, a native of Bogota, Colombia and an accomplished musician. Their piano lessons at this time were subject to frequent interruptions; for when strict supervision was not exercised over young Edward he was prone to indulge at the keyboard a fondness for composition which developed concurrently with, and often at the expense of his proficiency in piano technique. He was not a prodigy, though his gifts were evident and plentiful. His early attempts at composition were varied by an apt use of the pencil and sketching board. He liked to cover his music books with drawings that showed both the observing eye and skilful hand of a born artist. However, music and drawing were not sufficient outlets for his impulse toward expression. MacDowell also wrote a good deal of prose and verse and was very fond of creating fairy tales.
His first professional piano teacher was Paul Desvernine, with whom he studied until he was fifteen. He also studied with Teresa Carreño (1853–1917) (to whom he dedicated his Second Piano Concerto).
In 1876 he travelled to Paris accompanied by his mother. He passed the admission examination to the Paris Conservatory and began the Autumn term as a student of Antoine François Marmontel (1816–1898) and Augustin Savard (1814–1881).
One of his fellow pupils was Claude Debussy whom MacDowell described as a youth of erratic and non-conformist tendencies. His studies at the Conservatory were encumbered by his difficulty in understanding French. A teacher was hired to assist Edward in his resolute attack in overcoming his linguistic barrier. On one occasion, during one of these French lessons when the monotony of the hour was intolerable, Edward drew a free hand sketch (a portrait of his teacher) under cover of his lesson book. As is always the case in an experienced instructor’s tutelage, the event was detected and in an effort to embarrass the student, Edward was asked to exhibit the result of his efforts. The piece was such a remarkable likeness of the subject that the instructor insisted on keeping the sketch. Edward’s mother was later advised that an instructor at the Ecole de Beaux Arts felt the sketch evidenced a talent that begged development. This, compounded by Edward’s desire to continue his study elsewhere, culminated in MacDowell studying in Wiesbaden with Louis Ehlert (1825–1884) in 1879 and then in Frankfurt with Carl Heymann (1854–1922). It was in Frankfurt that MacDowell studied composition with Joachim Raff (1822–1882). Through Raff’s influence he became a piano teacher at the Darmstadt Conservatory in 1881. A year later, Raff introduced MacDowell to Franz Liszt. Liszt found MacDowell a personal delight and was most enthusiastic over his compositional efforts. The following years were spent in successful concert work. In 1884 MacDowell resumed teaching and compositional work in Wiesbaden. Four years later he returned to America, first settling in Boston and eventually returning to New York where he was called to the professorship of music at Columbia University. This was a tragic mistake. Visits to Boston and the purchase of a much-loved summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire could not relieve the mental strain brought on by the overwork and battles with the administration over financing the music department and recognising the academic worthiness of musical studies.
One of MacDowell’s students at Columbia, John Erskine (1879–1951) noted that when he told a Columbia University Dean of his interest in taking music courses the dean tried to dissuade him. “The idea had not yet penetrated the academic skull that music is a house-broken subject deserving polite toleration if not hospitality,” Erskine stated. “For most of the cultural high priests music was something you ‘tookup’ on the side, a mental discipline less rigorous and possibly less rewarding than poker”. MacDowell resigned a beaten man in 1904, succumbed to acute nervous prostration, and died in 1908.
Nicholas Tawa continues, “MacDowell himself once confessed that he preferred to write for piano rather than orchestra, because getting an orchestra to perform a work was a headache, and usually he would hear such a work played perhaps once every two or three years. On the other hand, he himself could play any of his piano compositions whenever he wished”.
“Fine as his most mature pieces may be however, they can now and again strike the ear of a modern-day listener as close to becoming too alike in the types of mood projected and the way the music realises a mood. A better appreciation arises when one listens to one piece at a time or the batches of two or three pieces. The moods heard in most of the miniatures of MacDowell’s maturity are restricted to three: the tender song without words with the tune in the upper part, melodious legato and the fingers of both hands occupied with chordal accompaniment; the majestic statement somewhat declamatory in nature, sonorous, thickly textured the most significant part set forth in octaves and the deep bass utilised; and the high spirited playful bagatelle, such as the pieces depicting autumnal scenes or ‘Uncle Remus’ or ‘Br’er Rabbit’, where patterns of sound are less chord a land dense, syncopations are often introduced and sixteenth notes are likely to dart about in a whimsical manner. Real contrapuntal activity is rare. Thin textures are normally not for him. Foreign to his style is a plain single-note tune in one hand, accompanied by some sort of broken chord figuration also set forth in single notes in the other. Interestingly, a majority of the miniatures, even many of the etudes pose no great technical difficulty. Their challenge lies in the interpretation of the poetic expression required by the composer”.
Nicholas Tawa concludes: “The finest of MacDowell’s short characteristic pieces are collected in four suites. Woodland Sketches, Opus 51 (1896); Sea Pieces, Opus 55 (1898); Fireside Tales, Opus 61 (1902); and New England Idyls, Opus 62 (1902). Each work is clearly structured and compact. Each is an individual tonal painting executed by a sure hand certain of what it wants to achieve and how to achieve it. One may be a modest diatonic ditty supported by constant triads; another a complex chromatic melody heard above altered seventh and ninth chords”.
Woodland Sketches was composed when MacDowell was reflecting and interpreting the natural beauty surrounding his Peterborough summer home. It was in Peterborough that he wrote all of them. To a Wild Rose became number one in the set almost accidentally. MacDowell wrote out a short melody every morning which he would later throw away. In this way he felt he kept his technique of melodic composition finely honed. Upon hearing one of these cast-offs, Mrs. MacDowell remarked that it reminded her of some wild roses growing close to their cabin in Peterborough. MacDowell retrieved the tune and titled it accordingly predicated on his wife’s suggestion. Will-o’-the-Wisp is an example of MacDowell’s effortless bagatelle style. At an Old Trysting Place does not refer to lovers. It is MacDowell’s effort to try and express the homesickness of a group of people who originated in Peterborough but had to travel west in search of fertile lands thus abandoning their birth place. This work is MacDowell trying to capture the feeling of pining for home. In Autumn vibrates with cheer and is brisk and Snappy just like a fall day after summer’s languor. From an Indian Lodge states itself in declamation. To a Water-lily originates from MacDowell smelling the Scent of a Water-lily growing out of a coal-black pool on an old deserted road. His comment was “I have been thinking of the resemblance between that pool and the tenements found when I went to look for my birth place. Suddenly realised that the slums are a great deal like that blackpool. Some of our finest citizens have come out of that environment just as the water lilies force their way to the surface to flower in great beauty”.
From Uncle Remus attribute to American writer Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) as told by an old black Uncle Remus. A Deserted Farm held the same symbolic import to New England’s history as the ruins of an old castle might to a family in Great Britain. MacDowell tried to capture the emotion of a family leaving a beloved homestead with the intent to return, and later generations gazing at the evidences of the abandonment. By a Meadow Brook does not babble but it does radiate a certain effervescence and crispness of sound. Told at Sunset functions as an epilogue.
Sea Pieces contains eight numbers, all superb and prefaced with a line or short stanza of verse. Each number introduces a moving and striking piece with a concept focusing on the distinction of particular aspects of the oceanscape and its wonder, mystery and vast beauty. To the Sea opens this set of miniature tone-paintings. MacDowell prefaces it “Ocean thou mighty monster”. The work is to be played “with dignity and breadth” evoking the body of water. From a Wandering Iceberg is prefaced with four lines:
“An errant princess of the north,
A.D. MDCXX is a musical picture of the Mayflower, to be played with “ponderous swing” evoking the ship that brought the Pilgrims to American shores like a Winslow Homer painting. It is prefaced as well:
“The yellow setting sun
Starlight is a tender mood picture of the sea during a starry night:
“The stars are but the cherubs
Song is the song of a sailor on the watch, now grave, now joyous, but always brave:
“A merry song, a chorus brave,
From the Depths was one of pianist Rudolph Ganz’s favourite MacDowell works. He calls this languid and mysterious piece “exceptionally grave and powerful”. It is prefaced with only one line: “And who shall sound the mystery of the sea?” Nautilus paints in tones a poetic picture of “The Chambered Nautilus”—that fairy creature of the sea floating in iridescent splendour upon the sunlit waves. The sheet music carries with the title a charming suggestion in the line: “A fairy sail and a fairy boat”. The collection ends with In Mid-ocean, to be played with “deep feeling” and prefaced with:
Fireside Tales was composed with a great deal of whimsy and humour. Syncopations and brusque gesturing that one associates with a minstrel-show dance appear in numbers 1, 3, 5 and 6. A privacy and musing and a gentle serious fancifulness give us a clue as to what the young MacDowell might have smiled over as a toddler-child. The collection begins with An Old Love Story, a tender and charming miniature musical love sonnet. Of Br’er Rabbit is a spirited and humorous romp with Joel Chandler Harris’ fictional rabbit: “He was born little, so no matter whereabouts you put him, he could cut capers and play pranks. What he couldn’t do with his feet he could do with his head, and when his head got him in trouble, he put his dependence back on his feet, because that’s where he kept his lippity-clip and his blickety-blick”. From a German Forest is a dreamy picture of MacDowell’s visits to German forests while a student in the 1880s. Of Salamanders is a whimsical, impressionistic picture of a longtailed, short-legged, slender-bodied, moist skinned salamander that feels equally at home in water and on land. In A Haunted House MacDowell comes upon a mysterious, abandoned house whose inhabitants are lithesome spirits. The Fireside Tales come to a close musingly in By Smouldering Embers where the fire is almost out, it is late in the evening, and MacDowell bids us good night.
New England Idyls, as their title suggest, are the contents of a recorded dreamlike fantasy. Most tender in nature all the numbers are impeccably rendered miniatures of a place “overthere” before we hit adult reality when we skipped with slingshots in our pockets and danced in virgin rain puddles in our Sunday School best. The first of the idyls is An Old Garden prefaced with a bit of poetry:
All old posies,
Mid-summer is a dreamy portrait of a warm and lazy time of the year:
“Droning Summer slumbers on
For Mid-winter MacDowell provides the following poetic motto:
“In shrouded awe the world is wrapped,
And lo! a thread of fate is snapped,
With Sweet Lavender is another of MacDowell’s sweet and delicate masterpieces:
“From days of yore,
A treasured store
Woods, forests and trees were often MacDowell’s inspirations. He treasured his home in New Hampshire and often took walks among the trees. In Deep Woods tells the tale:
“Above, long slender shafts of opal flame,
The lore and music of the American Indian was a significant source of musical inspiration for Edward MacDowell. In his Indian Idyl he utilises an Iowa Indian love song:
“Alone by the wayward flame
Once again in To an Old White Pine MacDowell erects a stately, dignified musical monument:
“A giant of an ancient race
American Puritan roots are once again musically treated in From Puritan Days which has the shortest poetic motto: “In Nomine Domini”. From a Log Cabin is perhaps MacDowell’s own view of his Peterborough home:
“A house of dreams untold,
The Joy of Autumn races along with utmost insouciance:
“From hill-top to vale,
James Huneker called MacDowell “the most poetic composer in America”. Olin Downes stated that MacDowell’s place in music history is unquestioned. “His was the nature and expression of the complete artist—of the reaches of his spirit, and his perception of nature and the beauty and tragedy of human destiny, revealed to him by his “familiars” of forest, sky, and Sea”. To Virgil Thomson MacDowell “left us a repertory of unforgettable pieces, all different from one another and all charming”. Upton Sinclair wrote: “His personality was to me as a bit of radium, which continues to give out energy, and yet is undiminished and imperishable. He was a vital artist, and one does not meet many of them in one lifetime.” His wife had his tombstone inscribed with the lines prefixed to the piece From a Log Cabin:
“A house of dreams untold,
Marina A. Ledin
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