Old Smoke: Wild Rose MacDowell

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


On December 14, 1894, Edward MacDowell performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Anton Seidl. Although it had been first performed in Boston some five years before, the concerto had not previously been performed here. After all, before the advent of the phonograph and the radio, orchestral music could be heard only in live performance.

Thus, the piece was in a very real sense new to New Yorkers–and MacDowell himself was a magnificent pianist at the top of his form. He triumphed, and in the hour of performance, his work seemed to stand on the edge of immortality. W. J. Henderson of the New York Times found the concerto impossible to speak of "in terms of judicial calmness, for it is made of the stuff that calls for enthusiasm…here is one young man who has placed himself on a level with the men owned by the world."

In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, the New York-born MacDowell was world-renowned as America’s greatest living composer. His concerti, sonatas, tone poems and song cycles were being performed throughout Europe, in Japan, even in South Africa. Some contemporaries–Seidl in particular–declared him superior to Brahms.

Yet today, he is nearly forgotten. Edward Alexander MacDowell was born at 220 Clinton St. in Manhattan on December 18, 1860. His father was a prosperous wholesale milk dealer who loved the arts; his mother, having seen to it that he knew French, Spanish, German, Latin and Greek, arranged his first piano lessons. In 1876 he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire, then, as now, one of the world’s leading conservatories. At 16, MacDowell was the youngest applicant in a pool of 300, and his performance in the entrance examinations won him one of the two scholarships awarded that year to foreign students. Yet he found the Conservatoire’s method of teaching piano–which relied heavily on sight-reading skills–to be pointless and absurd. His instructors wanted him to play music with the score turned upside down or to transpose it into a different key, and directed him to correct the work of earlier composers, such as Bach, so as to make it conform to the Conservatoire’s notions of what constituted proper composition. MacDowell wanted to work and felt he was being taught to play games.

After hearing the Russian virtuoso Anton Rubenstein burn up the piano in a bravura performance of Tchaikovsky’s concerto in B-flat minor at the Paris Exposition of 1878, he resolved to leave Paris, where he would never learn to play like that. Despite his youth (he was now 18), he won a place at the Frankfurt Conservatory, where most of his classmates were closer to 30. There he found instructors who dared to teach and play the classics "as if they had actually been written by men with blood in their veins."

One day, one of MacDowell’s teachers, Joachim Raff, a composer, interrupted MacDowell while he was supposed to be practicing. He was actually just fooling around at the keyboard. Raff asked about the piece MacDowell was working on. Embarrassed at being caught idling, MacDowell, though usually candid, said he was working on a composition. Raff asked to see it when it was done. Feeling trapped (and liking Raff, as well), MacDowell chose to deliver. He wrote his first piano concerto over the next two weeks. Raff glanced at it. Then he scribbled a letter and said, "Take it to Liszt."

Franz Liszt had created the stereotype of the great Romantic pianist and lived the rock star’s life, groupies and all. Now, in the fall of 1881, he lived in semi-retirement in Weimar. MacDowell arrived at Liszt’s home with Raff’s letter and the concerto’s manuscript. Shyness overcame him; he could not raise his hand to the doorbell, and so he sat in Liszt’s garden for an hour. Then the old man himself came outside and escorted MacDowell into his house. After MacDowell had warmed himself, he played the concerto. Liszt knew a good thing when he heard it and used his influence to have MacDowell’s works placed on concert programs. He also persuaded his own publishers to take the piano concerto.

MacDowell remained in Germany for the next decade, teaching, composing and performing. He married one of his students, a young American woman named Marian Nevins, in 1884. The marriage was a wonderful success: Marian later wrote, "There was an extraordinary camaraderie between us which we never lost… Until he died, he gave me what few women ever have (from a man), his absolutely undivided affection…"

The first concerto, premiered in 1885, made MacDowell famous overnight. Stirring in mood, dazzling in technique, it provided him with a splendid vehicle for concert performances. So did his fiendishly difficult Witches’ Dance, a bit of showmanship that knocked their socks off across Europe. Critics hailed MacDowell’s mastery of the keyboard, his supreme power and control, as well as his striking stage presence. Tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with muscular arms and hands, he had jet-black hair and flashing blue eyes. All this, along with a flamboyantly waxed dark red mustache, must have made him irresistible.

In 1888, the MacDowells came home. They settled in Boston, then the center of American musical life. There MacDowell taught and went on national concert tours. His piano miniatures Woodland Sketches and New England Idylls, his settings of "To a Wild Rose" and "To a Water Lily" were on drawing room pianos throughout the country even as his larger works were being performed from Portland to San Francisco. During his Boston years, he wrote four massive piano sonatas, the Tragica, Eroica, Norse and Keltic, each investing (or warping, as MacDowell self-deprecatingly said) the sonata form with symphonic grandeur.

On January 23, 1896, MacDowell gave a return performance of his Concerto with the Boston Symphony at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Seth Low, president of Columbia University, was in the audience. Earlier that year, Columbia had received a grant to establish its first professorship of music. In April 1896, Low offered MacDowell the job. He was 35 years old.

MacDowell was the music department. He taught seven year-long courses, each meeting two to three hours weekly, and without teaching assistant or secretary dealt with everything from purchasing desks, pianos and library books to hiring outside lecturers, ordering chalk and keeping the instruments in tune. (He often retuned them himself–it was easier than fighting with the university’s business managers, who refused to understand that pianos do go out of tune.) MacDowell slaved over the organization and content of his lectures to have them appear spontaneous, and also provided substantial individual instruction and individual examinations.

In 1901, Seth Low was elected mayor of New York and resigned from Columbia’s presidency. His successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, was a very different kind of man–a power seeker, far more interested in administration and in the idea of the educator than in ideas themselves, though he had taught philosophy. A mere five years in the classroom had convinced Butler that education was a science. He had founded Teachers College, successfully lobbied for compulsory state licensing of teachers (all of whom were required to have a degree in education, thus promoting the interests of the education industry), and advocated the centralization of the New York City schools, all reflecting Butler’s faith that centralized authority in the hands of men such as himself inevitably led to improvement.

Unfortunately, MacDowell chose this moment to propose restructuring Columbia’s curriculum, passionately arguing that some education in at least one of the fine arts was as essential as in science or history. Butler opposed the idea, largely because the mainstream faculty felt threatened, and it seemed more politic to soothe their feelings. But MacDowell persisted. Butler saw this as a challenge to his own authority and vision for Columbia. He was not above spreading sly, personal speculations about MacDowell’s character, temperament and intelligence among colleagues–all behind the composer’s back. MacDowell’s proposal was definitively turned down in September 1903. He resigned the following February.

In March 1905, MacDowell was knocked down by a hansom cab at Broadway and 21st St. One wheel rolled over his spine: the injuries were physically and emotionally debilitating. He had been depressed since his resignation; now his depression darkened. Over the summer, his hair turned white. By November, his gait had become unsteady. His physicians never quite diagnosed his illness: Alan H. Levy, his most recent biographer, speculates that his depression, deepened by his physical injuries, led to a progressive aphasia. By the winter of 1905-06, he was dying. Friends raised funds to defray his medical expenses. Seth Low privately gave $2000 to Marian MacDowell and lent the MacDowells his car. Butler didn’t even send a get-well card.

Now he was attended by a full-time nurse and a servant who carried him about. By the summer of 1907, he no longer recognized his parents. On January 23, 1908, his wife said to him, "Won’t you give me a kiss?" He managed to pucker his lips. He looked at her for the first time in days with something like recognition. Then he stopped breathing. He was 46 years old.

His reputation was as the wild rose that fades. By the 30s, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who should have known better, dismissed MacDowell and his contemporaries as genteel, over-gentlemanly and bourgeois. Copland claimed that none of them wrote with fire in the eye: "There were no Dostoyevskys, no Rimbauds among them; no one expired in the gutter like Edgar Allan Poe."

Alan H. Levy has called this phenomenon "the great erasure." He suggests that the Copland generation wanted to believe itself the first American composers in whom the nation could take pride. They weren’t, of course, but the eclipse of MacDowell and the composers of his generation reflects how the Depression-era seizure of the nation’s musical establishment by the left sent much of America’s musical culture down the memory hole. Thomson finally admitted, shortly before his death, that MacDowell’s reputation might supplant that of MacDowell’s contemporary Charles Ives, whose cantankerous personality and freakish originality long charmed the critics. Only in the last few years have people begun quietly admitting that most of Ives’ so-called major works are unlistenable.

Nicholas Murray Butler remained president of Columbia until 1945. During WWI, he purged the faculty of antiwar professors and did the same to leftists during the 1930s and 1940s. The Republicans nominated him for vice president in 1912; he sought their presidential nomination in 1920. His support for the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, one of many attempts between the wars to achieve peace without creating a means to enforce it, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. He, too, is almost forgotten.

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