Piano Concert No 2

Edward MacDowell

Edward Alexander MacDowell was an American pianist and composer, one of the first seven chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Although trained in the Paris Conservatoire and the Frankfurt Academy, he was often considered to be the most important American composer of his day. During his lifetime (1860-1908), European training was not unusual for U.S. composers, because there were no American conservatories during this time.

At age 17, his mother took him from New York to Paris for his musical education, and he remained in Europe for many years. His life spanned the height of Romanticism, and his compositions (a specialist in miniatures and character pieces, such as Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, and New England Idylls) embrace the ideals and ideas of that philosophy. Of particular importance was his fascination with nature, and some of his most famous pieces (To A Wild Rose, for example) reflect his ability to transmit the beauty of what he saw around him. At his funeral, James Huneker noted, “He was a born tone poet.  He also had the painter’s eye and the interior vision of the seer.”

His Second Piano Concerto was composed in Wiesbaden, Germany between 1884 and 1885 and was dedicated to the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreno. The American premiere was in New York on March 5, 1889 with the composer as soloist. The same concert included the American premier of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Critics decided then and there that MacDowell’s was the superior work! On March 13, 1889, the Musical Courier stated, “In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. One vainly sought for coherency and homogeneousness.” Regarding the MacDowell Concerto, The New York Tribune wrote, “It is a splendid composition, so full of poetry, so full of vigor as to temp 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.” In Europe, however, critics complained that the work was “too Lisztian.” Liszt had been the composer’s friend and a strong promoter of his music. Their admiration was mutual.

In 1888, MacDowell and his wife Marian Nevins, a former piano student, decided to return to the United States to live in Boston. Two years previously, he and his wife had bought a summer home, Hillcrest Farm, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. In 1896, he became the first chairman of the Music Department at Columbia University until 1904. In 1907, Marian established the MacDowell Colony for artists, composers and writers, deeding Hillcrest Farm for this purpose.  The Colony became a huge success thanks to Andrew Carnegie, J.P Morgan, Grover Cleveland, and many donors who supported its mission, a blending of artistic talents.  There are now dozens of buildings in the colony on 450 acres, and it is on the National Register of Historical Landmarks.

Opus 23 is built in traditional sonata-allegro structure but unusual in that its tempo marking Larghetto calmato indicated that a slow pace came first. A dreamlike, nostalgic theme begins immediately in the violins followed by horns. When the soloist enters with a stunning, extensive cadenza, it is clear that the composer has big ideas on hand for the pianist.  Eventually, this melts into a slow recall of the main idea from violins, flute and horns with pizzicato celli. Again, the pianist re-enters with another massive display and amplification of preceding themes, exciting the orchestra into a brilliant response. With its soaring lyricism, magnificent coloration, and alluring passion, the opening movement is clearly committed to romantic ideals, drama, power, and exuberance. In its dream-like passages, it also speaks to the Romantic ideals of intimacy and tenderness.

For his second movement, MacDowell produces a presto giocoso (fast moving) dazzling scherzo in rondo form. It contains three themes, which had been destined for a symphonic poem about Beatrice and Benedict, referencing Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, the first Shakespeare play the composer and his wife had seen in England. According to his wife, “He favored the mischievous demons or elves that fly in clouds through the air like pixies they were light gossamer nothings, delicate as a feather, wafted by swift March breezes.”

MacDowell’s friend and pupil, Mr. T.P. Currier, noted, “his finger velocity was the most striking characteristic of his playing… he took to prestissimo like a duck to water… One of his ever present fears was that his fingers would run away with him!” This movement demands formidable technique, strength, and crisp articulations. The closing marked piu mosso (faster) is definitely pixie-like: marked ppp, the pianist plays a passage of light broken chords, capped by two swift little arpeggios and a light staccato chord over pizzicato strings: the movement simply disappears.

The final movement opens slowly, marked Largo. Low strings preface the soloist’s quiet response. The two forces blend in before the pianist delivers the massive first theme.  After spinning trills, the music shifts to a jolly, faster pace (molto allegro) expanding the ideas into dramatic relief.  The main theme of the first movement returns for a final bow before three faster ideas are introduced.  Midpoint, the music moves into a thoughtful lento segment, but with the soloist leading the way, MacDowell ignites the last section into huge orchestral climaxes, pianistic fireworks, galloping toward a massive closing chord.

There is also a two piano version of the Second Piano Concerto, Opus 24, arranged by the composer in 1890.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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