January 20, 1917
Page 3
America Gradually Coming Into a True Appreciation of Its Greatest Composer

Some of the Finest Fruits of MacDowell’s Genius Still Undiscovered by Most Music-Lovers—But the Light Seems at Last to Be Breaking, as a Result Largely of the Country-wide Propaganda Carried Through by His Widow—MacDowell’s Artistic Ideals and Achievements as Viewed by the One Who Knew Them Best

INVOLUNTARILY one remembers Cosima Wagner upon meeting the widow of Edward MacDowell. For, if the two women are antithetical in character, in temperament, in their relations to the world, their abiding devotion to the memory of those choice spirits whose light continues to reflect upon them, and their complete self-consecration to the advancement of an artistic cause constitute a bond that commends itself to the imagination. Yet in the very process of their fidelity there are great differences. The aged, proud recluse of Bayreuth has with years grown narrow, suspicious, intolerant. The no less faithful companion of the American composer—who is still a young woman—is liberal, open to progressive influences and democratic in a sense that Cosima, even in her earlier days, never was. Who shall say that her mission is not the harder? Richard Wagner, Titan that he was, would have commanded the allegiance of mankind by dint of sheer prodigious personality, by the vastness and novelty of his conceptions and by his aptitude in focusing attention upon himself. In a sense, open hostility is easier to overcome than indifference—and merely indifferent to Wagner the world could never be. Edward MacDowell had none of Wagner’s combativeness nor his genius for self-exploitation. His reticence militated against him in life. He was not truly appreciated when he died, nor is he to-day. By most persons the “greater MacDowell” is still undiscovered. People are slow to learn—musicians, especially, are bovine. But light seems to be breaking and for this fact credit belongs primarily to MacDowell’s wife. The extent of popular indebtedness to her will be realized in America only later.
In an earlier day Mrs. MacDowell had harbored the ambitions of a concert pianist. Her marriage put a period to them. Thereafter her aim and object consisted in devotting her best efforts to the well-being of her husband. But after his tragic passing she ·returned to the task of making capital of her pianistic skill (which she modestly endeavors to minimize), this time in his interest. And so, besides her great work in relation to the Peterborough colony—the proceeds of her recitals revert unreservedly to the MacDowell Memorial Association—she has for years traveled the country doing propaganda for his music—lecturing, explaining, illustrating by performance. She has had to encounter and overcome ignorance and prejudice, to combat apathy and misconception. She has done so unfalteringly, with cheerful eagerness and a simple charm of manner that never fails of its appeal. And she is just beginning to see her labors bear fruit.
Liszt, when told of the slow progress of his compositions, remarked “I can wait.” MacDowell, too, has had to wait. It is one of the curious ironies of American musical history that, while most persons would, if asked, pronounce him the outstanding American composer, not ten per cent of them know those productions wherein he is greatest. One recalls a remark to the effect that “every school-girl plays Grieg’s piano pieces and vocalists sing his melodious songs”; yet Grieg’s best piano writings almost never figure on concert programs, while a thick-skulled generation of singers are entirely oblivious to most of his finest lyrics. Similarly, certain people entertain the notion that MacDowell’s music is common property today because every schoolgirl does tear up the “Wild Rose” by the roots—to employ one of the composer’s own phrases; because piano virtuosi wreak themselves vertiginously upon the “Hexentanz,” the “Concert Study” and the “Märzwind” and because songsters have made “Thy Beaming Eyes” an abomination and have discovered “Long Ago” and “The Sea,” while Geraldine Farrar wins encores with “Bluebell.” And yet the real MacDowell is only beginning to emerge in the superb clangor and inexorable momentum of the “Keltic” Sonata.
MacDowell’s Metronomic Markings
It was my privilege to spend an hour recently with Mrs. MacDowell. We spoke of this singular unfamiliarity of many leading musicians with her husband’s finest and most representative efforts—of the neglect of compositions like the “Norse” and “Keltic” sonatas, the “Sea Pieces,” the “Fireside Tales”; of songs like the magnificent “Fair Springtide” and the adorable “To a Golden Rod.” Not a little of it she ascribes to the still prevalent hostility to indigenous musical products. As for singers, they are so easily satisfied with what makes ready appeal to a comparatively non-exigent public! “Strangely enough,” she told me, “the best of MacDowell’s music becomes thoroughly popular when it is adequately performed. I have noticed that. On my travels about the country it has pleased me to see how warmly people grew to like a song like ‘The Golden Rod’ and a piano piece like ‘From a German Forest.’ I have a queerly retentive memory and the mental note I made of MacDowell’s playing of his own music has never left me. And so, without for a moment making pretensions to virtuosity, I believe I am better able than most persons to convey an exact notion of his own ideas regarding its interpretation.
“Of course, the genuine exponent of MacDowell must have the Celtic intuition, the Celtic subtlety of imagination. But the average person is likely to be led astray by the metronome markings. These, for the greater part, are very faulty and MacDowell himself is to blame for that. For when he had finished a work it possessed little further interest for him. Proofreading became a burden and the addition of metronome indications was done haphazardly—with the unfortunate consequence that the score failed to convey his true intentions. Some things become quite preposterous taken at the tempo demanded by the metronomic figures. More than one person has called my attention to the digressions between my style of playing and the requirements of the printed page. The ‘Sea Pieces’ in particular suffer if not done with the proper rhythmic effect. Not long ago a lady from Montclair told me she would be especially happy to hear me play these; ‘for,’ she said, ‘I feel as if I ought to like them, though now I don’t. This, I am convinced, is the case with many; they have not heard MacDowell’s greatest works performed as he himself would have done them, with the right rhythm, tempo and spirit. And the clue to these is not invariably found in the pages of the score.
  • “THE genuine exponent of MacDowell must have the Celtic Intuition, the Celtic subtlety of Imagination.
  • “The average player is likely to be led astray by the metronomic markings.
  • “Few deeds I have witnessed have struck me as more moving and noble than the tireless enterprise of Teresa Carreño, who has upheld the cause (of MacDowell) from the first.
  • “MacDowell could never write to order nor would he attempt music in a form or style uncongenial to his artistic nature. * * * It was this consciousness of his own limitations that caused him to be so annoyed when people referred to him as the ‘leading American composer.’
  • “Creative Ideas came to him in a flash, but he expended the greatest energy and labor in their amplification. It was precisely because of this that he did not write more for orchestra. His leisure did not serve him.
  • “Had he been spared for further creation, I think he would have ceased writing for piano and turned to opera.”
“But if there is still a lamentable amount of ignorance in regard to the finest examples of his output, I have been deeply gratified to discover almost inadvertently how widely MacDowell is known abroad. Not long ago I lectured before a MacDowell Club in the South. It had only recently been organized. The young man who headed it came from Hungary. In surprise I asked him how he came to know this music. ‘Why, I have been hearing it ever since I was a child,’ he answered. I recall, too, a visit which Professor Eucken made to Peterboro some years ago. Inasmuch as he is not at all musical, the solicitude with which he carried out what seemed to be a pilgrimage impressed me forcibly. It seems, however, that at the German university with which he had been affiliated there was one old professor—a strange and picturesque character—who came in excitement one day to inform his colleagues that he had run across a genius. The old man became the warmest admirer of MacDowell from that moment and came to know intimately everything he wrote. He it was who, when Eucken came to this country, impressed upon him the necessity for visiting the place where the composer of whom he thought such great things had lived and worked.”
I took occasion, incidentally, to call Mrs. MacDowell’s attention to the frequent” indications I have noted in the works of several contemporary foreign composers of reputation of distinct evidences of MacDowellish influences, which are assuredly more than adventitious resemblances. She did much to confirm the impressions I have so often received by supplying me with some interesting and suggestive information regarding the widespread sale of her husband’s compositions abroad. Furthermore, the enterprise of a few devoted artists has been of invaluable service in doing propaganda for them.
Few deeds I have witnessed “she declares, “have struck me as more moving and noble than the tireless enterprise of Teresa Carreño, who has upheld the cause from the first. We had an illustration of it only recently in her performance of the ‘Keltic’ Sonata. Her zeal for this has never flagged, and she played the work from Madrid to Sweden. Think of this for high-minded artistic enthusiasm, for idealism and loyalty! And when in an earlier day someone remonstrated against her determination to play the D Minor Concerto she remarked with finality that she would play that or nothing. Contrast with this inspiring attitude that of many other musicians to-day! In this connection I always call to mind Liszt’s regret late in life that he had not more actively espoused the cause of Schumann in his younger days. ‘At that time’ he was wont to observe sadly, ‘I did not make a point of playing his music, merely because the public showed no interest in it.’ It grieved him to think that he who had championed so many others, should have neglected one of whose greatness he had been conscious merely because of popular coolness.”
Origin of the “Wild Rose”
It goes without saying that most of Mrs. MacDowell’s audiences throughout the country expect her to give them “To a Wild Rose” at some point in her program. MacDowell confectioned no -more popularly relished musical bonbon than this. How unceremoniously it originated how narrow was its escape from destruction and how little use the composer himself had for it are probably not known even by those who have heard of the fervent horror with which his own “Hexentanz” and “Thy Beaming Eyes” inspired him in his maturer creative period. The truth of it is that the world has his wife to thank for the preservation of the first “Woodland Sketch.”
“It was MacDowell’s belief that the technique of composition required exercise as constant as that of piano playing, said Mrs. MacDowelL “To this end he made it a point of writing something every day—a short melody, a canon, anything that might come to his mind—solely for the purpose of keeping in trim. Sometimes he did not even bother to keep these slight effusions. I remember seeing him one day impatiently throw into the waste basket a crumpled bit of paper. I picked it up, read it and told him the little piece had elements of popularity. He replied that he thought it maudlin. But after a while he came to look at it in rather a better light and finally consented to its publication. Yet its extensive vogue was not the most pleasing thing to him.
“With it all, he could never write to order, nor was he at any time content to attempt music in a form or a style uncongenial to his artistic nature. A ‘Hora Novissima’ he never could have produced. And I remember in the early days of our marriage, when we were living in Boston with scarcely enough to keep body and soul together, how he lost a chance to earn a hundred dollars through his uncompromising Idealism. This sum was offered him in consideration of a church anthem. He wanted to reject the offer flatly at first but the temptation to improve our disastrous circumstances was strong. So he made the attempt. It was a bitter struggle and in the end he had to give up. An anthem was not in his line and consciously to produce trash revolted him. I still have the sheet of manuscript with the unhappy evidences of that effort. Yet a man like Arthur Foote could have done exactly what was wanted with no trouble whatsoever. It was just this sort of thing, this full consciousness of his own limitations that caused him to be so annoyed when people referred to him as the ‘leading American composer.’ He was a ‘leading composer,’ he believed, only insofar as he excelled others. And since others could work successfully in forms and manners that he could never as efficiently circumvent he failed to see how he could rightfully be looked upon as greater than they.
Limitations of Opportunity
“With regard to his art I enjoyed his completest confidence. I saw his compositions grow. At the end of a day he would acquaint me with every phase of what he had done during his working hours. He worked hard and slowly, for, although the creative ideas came to him in a flash, he expended ·the greatest energy and labor in their amplification. It was precisely because of this that he did not write more for orchestra. His leisure did not serve him for the amount of elaboration and development that a work along symphonic lines entailed. But for this I believe that the ‘Norse’ arid ‘Keltic’ sonatas would not have been piano works, in spite of the pianistic quality of such a composition as the latter. Wanting the opportunity for prolonged application, he threw himself into an exploitation of his ideas on the piano.
“Had he been spared for further creation, I think he would have ceased writing for piano and turned to opera. Not in its conventional form, however. For he strongly disliked opera in which much singing of things which ought not to be sung was necessary. He had more or less tentatively projected a type of lyric drama, its subject matter drawn from the Arthurian legends (which always excited such a hold on his Celtic fancy) in which singing was to be replaced, except at a few supreme moments, by a sort of plastic pantomime elucidated by a vivid orchestral commentary. But the idea remained in a crude, undeveloped state. Whether it could have been brought to a successful issue or not I should, naturally, not pretend to say." —H.F.P.


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