About this Recording
8.223633 - 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. From his Scottish-Irish ancestry, MacDowell inherited an absorbing interest in legend and poetry which coloured all of his later life. He went to school in New York. As a schoolboy the young MacDowell loved to sketch in the margins of his school books. In later life he would enjoy international fame for his short piano piece, To A Wild Rose.

Henry T. Finck, a distinguished American critic, wrote enthusiastically of MacDowell, saying that there were “enough diamonds and rubies and emeralds among the MacDowell writings to make a crown for him as king of contemporary American musicians”.

MacDowell began his study of the piano when very young. One of his first teachers was Teresa Carreño, who at one time was celebrated as the greatest woman pianist in the world.

Soon after his tenth birthday, MacDowell was taken on a tour of Europe by his mother. At fifteen, he returned to Europe to study piano and composition, attending for a time the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a fellow pupil with Claude Debussy. Later he went to Stuttgart and to Frankfurt, and was so fortunate as to win 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 technique in composition reached by artists only toward the close of their careers. This is illustrated in his Piano Concerto in A minor, and its orchestral accompaniment. MacDowell composed this piece within the three weeks, just before he had reached his eighteenth birthday. It was this dazzlingly brilliant work which the young composer carried with him on the occasion of his memorable visit to Liszt.

At twenty, MacDowell began teaching piano privately in Frankfurt, where one of his most talented students was Marion Nevins of New London, Connecticut, who, in 1884, became his wife. In 1888, Mr and Mrs MacDowell returned to America, making their home in Boston until 1896, 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 1896, many of MacDowell’s finest compositions were written at Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he and Mrs MacDowell had purchased 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, was retained in its original form, and the MacDowells did little remodelling 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 Log Cabin studio, the fame of which has encircled the world. 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 were years of growing nervous strain and illness for MacDowell. He died in New York City, January 23, 1908. At the funeral service held in St. George’s Church at Stuyvesant Square, tribute was paid by the greatest musicians and musical organisations of the nation. The Mendelssohn Glee Club, 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 on his own grounds in Peterborough. Just across the fields from the “Hillcrest“ house, and not too far from the Log Cabin, is the grave, marked by a huge boulder below. A bronze tablet was placed there by the Boston MacDowell Club.

MacDowell composed his Sonata No.4 “Keltic“, Opus 59 in 1901, dedicating the work to Edvard Grieg, to whom he also dedicated his Sonata No.3 “Norse“. According to Lawrence Gilman, MacDowell’s first biographer: “With 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:

Who minds now Keltic tales of yore,
Dark Druid rhymes that thrall;
Deirdre’s song, and wizard lore
Of great Cuchullin’s fall.

At the time of the publication of the sonata MacDowell wrote to Gilman: “... 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.“ According to Gilman, “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 Meave; of Naesi, and Deirdre the Beautiful, and Fergus, and Connla the Harper, and those kindred figures, lovely or greatly tragical, that are like no other figures in the world’s mythologies“. Continuing, Gilman states: “The Fourth Sonata 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 wonderous 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 folk-tale 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“.

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, Novellette has been described as “freely communicative and subjective.“ It is the grand opening to the set, Schumannesque and confident. The second, Moto Perpetuo, is a perpetual motion étude, perhaps intended to be a tribute to Carl Maria von Weber, whose own “Perpetuum Mobile“ was a popular encore piece. Wild Chase is a musical picture of a grizzly chase through the woods, perhaps influenced by Liszt’s étude, Wilde Jagd or the literary influence of the chase in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In MacDowell’s étude the hearer is at once plunged into the excitement of the chase—onward rush, the attack, the wild lunges at the prey, the hunting-song, all are there making the blood tingle. The fourth is entitled Improvisation. This 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. The Elfin Dance is a splendid tone picture of mischievous fairies with magical powers dancing. Valse Triste is a languorous dance, perhaps a dance one remembers in a distant memory or in a dream. The Burlesque is a glimpse at 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 étude, the sparkle has some melancholy moments. Träumerei means “dreaming“ or “reverie“, but in MacDowell’s piece we also feel a lightness and languidity not present in Schumann’s better known piece of the same name. The tenth Étude is entitled March Wind. Fierce and strong, the March wind blows 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. Herein we have not the gentle wind, the voice of a sweet and passionate wooer kissing the blushing leaf, but in a wailing, rushing sound, like a human cry, a giant that shakes the walls and wages his conflicts on the tumultuous seas. Impromptu is literally equivalent to an improvisation, but in the nineteenth century it came to mean a piece of music in a developed song form. In MacDowell’s Impromptu we hear 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 in the employment in its composition of their national songs, woven into music aristocratic in manner and mood. The Polonaise became thereafter one of the accepted forms of musical composition, beloved of many musicians, notably Chopin. MacDowell, too, has contributed a magnificent work to the collection. The concluding étude of this Opus 46, 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 like the abandonment to gaiety, even in the face of inevitable disaster so characteristic of the Polish and French nobility, displayed on the way to the guillotine or on the marches to a living death in far Siberia. And 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.

Notes by Victor Ledin,
© 1995, Encore Consultants

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