I consider myself a fairly well cultured person, but if asked to name some old American composers a few weeks ago I could only come up with Aaron Copland (him of Fanfare for the Common Man) and Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings). But nowadays I can name a third: Edward MacDowell.
MacDowell was born in New York at the start of the 1860’s. He moved to France in 1876 to study piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Whilst there his skills in art were also noticed and he was offered the chance to study painting instead, but turned this down to concentrate on his piano. Art’s loss was music’s gain and he would go on to produce some beautiful pieces. After Paris he spent an unhappy time as the head of piano at the Darmstadt Conservatory before moving to Frankfurt. There is a sketch, in the 1909 Lawrence Gilman book – published the year after MacDowell’s death, of the composer Liszt drawn by MacDowell in 1883. Liszt wrote a glowing letter to MacDowell praising his work.
He moved back to America in 1883 settling in Boston. One of his most famous pieces is the 1896 Op51 Woodland Sketches. Rooted in the folk tradition and based on his love of nature, this collection of 10 piano pieces starts with To a Wild Rose. Here I am playing it:
Other beautiful pieces from this works are Op51 No.3 At an Old Trysting Place, No.6 To a Water Lily, No.8 A Deserted Farm and No10 Told at Sunset. What I like about this whole suite is that that it is unlike music that I have really heard before.
As for MacDowell, unfortunately he died in 1908 in his late 40’s. The official cause of death was paresis. Which means a loss of voluntary movement. At the time the talk was that he was fatigued from overwork, and damaged from an incident when he was hit by a cab, and this account persists on wikipedia. But paresis was often shorthand for ‘general paresis’ which was a neuropsychiatric condition caused by untreated syphilis. In 2006 Arnold T Schwab wrote a convincing piece for Musical Quarterly about MacDowell’s death suggesting that undiagnosed case of syphilis from 20 or so years earlier before he was married was the most likely cause of his mental and physical decline. In 2013 E. Douglas Bomberger suggested bromide poisoning was the cause of his symptoms. We will never know, nor does it matter. We can just enjoy his music and he can take his place amongst the great American composers