About this Recording
8.223632 - MACDOWELL: First Modern Suite / 6 Idyls / Sonata No. 3

Edward MacDowell (1860–1908)
Piano Music, Volume 2


It would seem fair to say that Edward MacDowell was not only the most prominent American composer of the nineteenth century but also the first to see a considerable number of his works performed in Europe. At an early age MacDowell proved to be greatly gifted in both painting and music. He went to Paris for his studies and even while he took courses at the Conservatoire, where he was a classmate of Debussy, he was advised to switch to painting as a career. Yet in 1878 he went to Germany to continue his studies on the piano and in composing. Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, and Frankfurt were early stations of his stay in Germany. When in 1882, on the occasion of a visit to Liszt, that master invited him to play his (MacDowell’s) First Piano Concerto at a festival that same year, there was no longer any doubt that MacDowell was now a rising musician. He returned home in 1884, but later returned to Europe for another prolonged stay. After his final repatriation in 1888, he appeared in Boston as composer and pianist, and was from then on until his untimely death in 1908 an outstanding personality in the musical life of America.

MacDowell’s works attracted all the greatest interpreters of the time. It was Nikisch who first conducted his symphonic poem Lancelot and Elaine. In 1896, he was called to Columbia University to head there the newly created music department, a high honour at a time when music was not considered a subject worthy of the academic accolade. But MacDowell’s stay at Columbia was hardly the happiest or most successful part of his career, and he resigned in 1904. He received honorary degrees from the Universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton, and was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Being a fine pianist himself, MacDowell’s best compositions were written for that instrument: the first and second Modern Suite, two piano concertos, and collections of short pieces called by such characteristic names as Fireside Tales, New England Idyls, Woodland Sketches, Forest Idyls. The titles of his four sonatas are indicative of the romantic dreamer that MacDowell was: Tragica, Eroica, the Norse and the Keltic Sonatas. Besides a number of songs, he also composed a smaller number of orchestral works, among them Hamlet and Ophelia, and Lamia (after Keats). MacDowell, as the story of his life as well as his literary inclinations show, was a highly cultured man; a poet in music, a Romantic in the declining years of Romanticism.

Teresa Carreno, the noted Venezuelan pianist who was MacDowell’s boyhood teacher, was the first person to play MacDowell’s music in America. It happened that while MacDowell was studying in Europe, he sent Madame Carreno, who was then in America, a roll of manuscript along with a letter in which he said: “Dear Teresa: You know how I have always valued your advice. Look these over. If they are no good, put them in the paper basket and tell me, and I’ll never write another note”. Madame Carreno opened the bundle and there she found MacDowell’s First Suite, the Witches Dance, and several other pieces which later helped to make him famous. “I played them over”, she once related. “They were splendid. I was to give a recital in Chicago in two weeks, so I learned some of them, played them there—and that was the first MacDowell ever played in concert in the New World”. The First Modern Suite, Opus 10 was composed in 1881 and dedicated to the wife of his teacher and friend, Joachim Raff. It was first published in 1883 and subsequently republished with minor changes in 1891, 1896, 1904 and 1906. The revised 1906 edition was used for this recording. The Suite is in six movements, opening with a powerful Praeludium. The Presto that follows is a light elfin-like romp. MacDowell writes: “The Presto looks so innocent and easy, very much as Robert Louis Stevenson expressed it when he said, ‘It really looks like music if you hold it far enough away.” The Andantino ed Allegretto is serene and contemplative. MacDowell prefaces it with a quotation from Virgil, “Per amica silentia lunae”. The Intermezzo was shortened and lengthened by the composer several times. In an interview with Mrs. Crosby Adams in 1899, he stated: “The Intermezzo was re-written and lengthened after hearing from a famous artist who complained that it was ‘too short to put between pieces and not long enough to play by itself’—and then he never played it!” The Rhapsodie is dark-hued, majestic and almost Brahmsian. MacDowell provides a poetic motto on the score from Dante’s Inferno: “Lasciate ogni speranza / Voi ch’entrate”. Of the Fugue, MacDowell wrote: “I’m very proud of that fugue. It was written just after finishing counterpoint, and those four notes are used in every possible way, upside down, backwards and forwards. After I played it for Raff, he said to me, ‘Never let me hear that thing again.’ Raff did not like fugues”.

Amourette, Opus 1, and In Lilting Rhythm, Opus 2, were published by P.L. Jung in 1896 and 1897 under the pseudonym Edgar Thorn (Thorne). Illustrative of the shy and modest reserve of MacDowell is the story of the mythical “Edgar Thorne, ”who became a person of some consequence in New York City. Reference has frequently been made to MacDowell’s use of this nom de plume in connection with the writing of his Marionettes, the royalty of which was given over to a needy friend. But comparatively few people know of its first use, which was in connection with the Mendelssohn Glee Club. At the time of MacDowell’s taking over the direction of the club (18%) he found that the work with the singers offered to him a new avenue of musical expression and presented a desire to compose some music suitable for their use. But with his usual modesty he feared that if the men knew that the new songs he was presenting for their examination were of his own composition, they would feel under obligation to sing them. So one night he appeared at rehearsal with two new songs, under the name of “Edgar Thorne”, and simply asked them to try them over, if they liked them to sing them, perhaps in concert. The songs proved very effective, won the instant approval of the club, and remained “favourite” numbers. MacDowell used the same acid test on his poems, often copying texts which he had written for his own songs on the board for the use of his classes in composition either anonymously or under the signature of “Edgar Thorne”.

In 1949 Marian MacDowell (Edward MacDowell’s wife) wrote the following about the Six Idyls After Goethe, Opus 28: “When MacDowell had been at the Frankfurt Conservatory about two years, studying piano with Carl Heymann and composition with Joachim Raff, the position of piano instructor there was made vacant by Heymann’s resignation. Although only twenty, MacDowell was recommended for the position by both Raff and Heymann, but was not accepted because of his youth. Denied this opportunity he began to take private pupils, among them the young counts and countesses who lived at the ancient castle of Erbach-Fürstenau, a three-hour train journey from Frankfurt. This necessitated a weekly trip to the castle, which he tuned to good account by using the long train ride to familiarise himself with the works of Goethe, Heine, Schiller and other German writers. There is no record of appreciable musical accomplishment on the part of any of his aristocratic pupils, but for MacDowell the time was not wasted. The Idyls After Goethe and Poems After Heineare doubtless the indirect if not direct result; they are among his earlier compositions and must have been written not long afterward”. The Six Idyls After Goethe were first published in 1887 and reprinted with English translations of the poems in 1898. An “augmented” edition was published in 1901. According to Oscar Gearge Sonneck, cataloguer of MacDowell’s works at the Library of Congress, why this 1901 edition is called “augmented”, “is not clear, since the changes from the 1887 edition are not frequent, and affect only the melody, harmony, orthography, or interpretation of single bars. Nothing has otherwise been added. The composer’s own translations of the poems are used in this edition”.

Lawrence Gilman, in his book Edward MacDowell – A Study (1908) writes: “The spaciousness of the plan of the Third Sonata, the boldness of the drawing, the fullness and intensity of the colour scheme, engage one’s attention at the start. MacDowell has indulged almost to its extreme limits his predilection for extended chord formations and for phrases of heroic span—as in, for example, almost the whole of the first movement. The pervading quality of the musical thought is of a resistless and passionate virility. It is steeped in the barbaric and splendid atmosphere of the sagas. There are pages of epical breadth and power, passages of elemental vigour and ferocity—passages, again, of an exquisite tenderness and poignancy. Of the three movements which the work comprises, the first makes the most lasting impression, although the second (the slow movement) has a haunting subject, which is recalled episodically in the final movement in a passage of unforgettable beauty and character”.

Program notes by Victor Ledin, copyright 1995, Encore Consultants

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