Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

There were American composers of concert music before the twentieth century, and gradually they have been making their way back in to the repertory and onto recordings in the last two decades. Names like Paine, Chadwick, Foote, Beach, and Loeffler, which were almost entirely forgotten at mid-century have started coming back into our ken. The members of this group came from Boston, or studied there, or lived their adult lives there. The one figure linked with them, who was for a time the most famous of all, and called flatly the “greatest American composer” was Edward MacDowell. This is, to a certain degree, ironic, because MacDowell’s music, though warmly imaginative and brilliant, bore virtually no traits of Americanism. That is hardly surprising, since he completed virtually all of his studies in Europe and lived there until 1888, by which time he had already composed his major works for orchestra. (After returning to the United States, he wrote mostly songs and piano pieces, and these do, occasionally, begin to suggest American motifs.)

MacDowell studied piano with Carl Heymann but also advanced composition with Joachim Raff, the Director of the conservatory and a long-time friend of Franz Liszt’s. Indeed, it was through Liszt that MacDowell was able to get a performance of his First Piano Concerto in 1882, soon after its completion. But almost at once after that, Raff died, thus depriving MacDowell of a warmly supportive influence (Raff had even predicted–correctly, as it turns out–that MacDowell’s music would continue to be performed after his own was forgotten). For several years MacDowell remained in Germany, though he received a growing string of visitors from America who reported to him the growing music life in the United States. Without the Raff-Liszt connection, MacDowell could not get his Second Piano Concerto performed (most concert venues regarded it as too “Lisztian” and thus dangerous), so he finally decided to return to the United States. He settled in Boston for eight years, but it was in New York that he performed the concerto, which has remained his best-known large-scale composition.

The move to America began a decade that seemed filled with successes, starting with the very successful premiere of his Second Piano Concerto (which remains his best-known large-scale work) with Theodore Thomas and his orchestra in New York on March 5, 1889. H.E. Krehbiel wrote in the New York Tribune, “It is a splendid composition, so full of poetry, so full of vigor as to tempt the assertion that it must be placed at the head of all works of its kind produced by either a native or an adopted citizen of America.” Rarely had an American composer been especially celebrated to this degree.

Privately MacDowell was beginning to withdraw from the world. He was a man of wide reading and artistic interests, and one would expect him to thrive amidst the artistic social clubs of Boston with other like-minded men, especially when they had always treated him the greatest generosity and respect, and with a singular lack of envy for his triumphs. But Chadwick’s unpublished family memoir gives a somewhat different picture:

MacDowell came to Boston in the fall of 1888. He took a small house in West Cedar St. and at once became the fashion as a piano teacher. B.J. Lang found him very “difficile,” although I am sure his efforts were meant in all kindness. With me, MacD was very frank & companionable for a time. He and Mrs. often came to our house, and we had many long walks, rides, and talks together. Of others he was suspicious and shy. It was difficult to get him to commit himself on any subject except publishers and royalties. From these he was absolutely convinced that we were all getting a raw deal. He disliked some of our friends, especially Arthur Whiting, who was a bit too witty for him. He had a subtle vein of irony of his own, but he was very careful of its use among strangers.

MacDowell’s desire for privacy, as it seemed at first, evidently hid the beginnings of a more serious mental condition. He was named the first professor of music at Columbia University, which motivated a move to New York City. There he worked with great diligence, to the point of exhaustion, and rarely deigning to speak to the composers, like Chadwick with whom one might think that he would have much in common. Writing with the advantage of hindsight twenty years later, Chadwick said:

At the time I felt very much hurt about it, but time has explained many things that I did not then understand, and I can now see that it could hardly have been otherwise. Poor Mac! The shadows were undoubtedly beginning to gather, although so gradually and slowly that no one, not even his wife or [his close friend George Templeton] Strong could suspect it.

MacDowell returned from a sabbatical in the fall of 1903 to find that Columbia’s new president, Nicholas Murray Butler, had linked the music classes with courses in Columbia’s Teachers College. Butler and MacDowell had never seen eye to eye, and they grew increasingly antagonistic as the year progressed. Their disagreements became a matter of public knowledge in the press, and MacDowell announced his resignation at the end of the 1903-04 school year. Apparently in March 1903, to make matters worse, he was injured in an accident when he was run over by a hansom cab, and this may have brought on his mental illness. By December 1904 the signs were evident, and in the course of the following year he regressed to a childlike state with occasional periods of rationality. He spent his last days in institutional care. But he remained a well-known composer, and when the United States government issued the very first stamps ever to bear the images of composers–in the 1940s–MacDowell was the only classical composer included in the group, along with Stephen Foster, Victor Herbert, and a few others.