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Very Good for an American

Essays on Edward MacDowell

E. Douglas Bomberger, Editor
July 15, 2017

244 pp.

22 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1-57647-305-4

6 $48.00

Out-of-Print. This book is no longer available from Pendragon Press.


This collection of essays explores topics of relevance to understanding Edward MacDowell (1860–1908) and his music. At the height of his career, MacDowell was widely recognized as America’s leading composer. He had come of age during an era when the infrastructure of concert music in the United States was expanding rapidly, as outlined in Javier Albo’s description of historical concerts in New York during his childhood. MacDowell came from an unusual background that resulted from the interaction between his father’s Quaker roots, described in Douglas Bomberger’s essay, and his mother’s ambitious goals. He benefited from the early advocacy of his mother’s best friend, the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño, whose support of MacDowell is explored in Laura Pita’s essay. He studied for two years in Paris and then spent a decade in Germany, studying with Liszt’s pupil Raff and establishing his career. The crucial influences of Wagner and Liszt on MacDowell’s style are explored in essays by Francis Brancaleone and John Graziano. He lived in Boston from 1888 to 1896, during which time he was in close contact with George Whitefield Chadwick, an American contemporary whose career as an organist is examined in an essay by Marianne Betz. MacDowell’s growing body of works for piano and orchestra earned him the reputation of America’s most important young composer, which led to his appointment as first professor of music at Columbia University in 1896. His contributions as a teacher were ended after eight years by a public dispute with President Nicholas Murray Butler, explored in Michael Joiner’s essay. Columbia continued to feel the tension of the issues raised by MacDowell and Butler for generations, as demonstrated in Mark Radice’s discussion of Chou Wen-chung’s experience on the faculty from the 1960s through the 1990s. After MacDowell’s death at the age of forty-seven, his widow Marian developed their Peterborough, NH, farm into an artists’ colony that is still prominent today. Robin Rausch’s essay, richly illustrated with photos from the Library of Congress, shows how she gained support for her efforts through summer pageants.


E. Douglas Bomberger, Editor:


May 31, 2019

“Very Good for an American”: Essays on Edward MacDowell. Edited by E. Douglas Bomberger. (American Music and Musicians Series, no. 5.) Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2017. [xiii, 234 p. ISBN 9781576473054 (paper- back), $48; ISBN 9781576472712 (e-book), $46.] Music examples, illustra- tions, bibliography, index, work lists.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Edward MacDowell was at the top of his game. Not only had he been appointed the first professor of music at Columbia University, his compositions were equally valued at home and abroad. The Germanophile conductor Theodore Thomas, for example, insisted that his Second Piano Concerto, op. 23 (1884–86) was not merely “very good for an ‘American,’ ” but “for a German either” (p. 2). Such transatlantic esteem was rare indeed. And yet, as E. Douglas Bomberger argues in the introduction to this new collection of essays, MacDowell’s status was not secure. Within a few years, he would resign from Columbia, defeated in an ideological struggle with its administration, and within a quarter century the fortunes of his reception would change, as proponents of the avant-garde— positioning themselves as rugged innovators—recast MacDowell as an effeminate composer of miniatures. It is true that MacDowell devoted time to smaller-scale genres—not only suites, sonatas, and songs, but also character pieces for amateur pianists. His reputation suffered beginning in the 1920s, resulting in the neglect of his work in larger-scale genres like the concerto and symphonic poem. The unevenness of MacDowell’s reception is not altogether unlike that of the essays Bomberger assembles. Together, these represent a welcome contribution that nuance aspects of MacDowell’s life and music, ranging from his youthful relationship to Quakerism and exposure to historical concerts in New York City to his years at Columbia and his wife Marian’s founding of the MacDowell Colony shortly before his death. But while the best of the essays exhibit world-class scholarship, others are occasionally bland, and one is entirely questionable. Just as MacDowell’s image rose and fell with the passage of time, so does the reader’s satisfaction ebb and flow as the pages turn.

Bomberger opens the volume on a strong note, following his summary of MacDowell’s reception with an evaluation of the composer’s Quaker roots. He argues that MacDowell’s early marginalization as a member of a mixed Quaker family (his mother was outside the fellowship) prepared him to take creative stands later in life without fear of reprisal. Not only this, his mother took a more liberal view of music than most Quakers, for whom it retained the stigma of vice, and she thus encouraged his early development as a performer. Bomberger concludes that although the experience of Quakerism molded MacDowell, it ultimately makes little sense to define him as a Quaker composer.

The next essay in the collection is its finest: a history of the historical concert in New York City from 1860, the year of MacDowell’s birth there, to 1876, when he left to study in Europe. In documenting a trend that shaped MacDowell musically, F. Javier Albo does more than explain the inspiration for historically conscious piano works like the Modern Suites, opp. 10 and 14 (1880–82) and the Prelude and Fugue, op. 13 (1881). He educates the reader on the origins of the solo-piano recital format, with its thoughtfully ordered series of works by dead composers. Though taken for granted today, this format was new when MacDowell grew up. Surrounded by variety programs in which currency was paramount, MacDowell could nevertheless attend serious concerts devoted to the accurate interpretation of past piano masters, much as we do now.

If New York’s historical concerts account for the genesis of some of MacDowell’s early works, they are less useful in explaining how his composi- tions brought him to prominence. As Laura Pita outlines in her contribution, this was the responsibility of Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño (1853–1917), a family friend of the MacDowells who taught Edward occasionally and performed his works regularly at prestigious international venues. Although Carreño’s relationship with the family had its ups and downs, Edward would not have earned European acclaim without her support.

MacDowell’s transatlantic credentials continue to captivate his devotees. In an effort to enshrine MacDowell in the pantheon of great composers, scholars have emphasized his European connections to the neglect of his American ones, even though the composer spent more than three quarters of his life on US soil. A pair of essays by John Graziano and Francis Brancaleone demonstrates this bias. It is not that Graziano is unreasonable in attributing MacDowell’s interest in the symphonic poem and advanced chromatic language to the influence of Franz Liszt or that Brancaleone’s account of Richard Wagner’s effect on MacDowell is unconvincing; rather, one simply wearies of the search for relationships to worn-out models. Readers might not help but wonder if these Eurocentric assessments ultimately reinscribe a patronizing “good for an American” stance toward MacDowell. Why not consider his debt to American symphonic poems like William Henry Fry’s Santa Claus (1853) and Niagara (1854)? And if MacDowell quoted Wagner, did he not also quote others, perhaps even non-Europeans? Such possibilities remain unexplored. Marianne Betz shifts the focus of the volume to the United States, setting MacDowell in relationship to George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931) and Horatio William Parker (1863–1919). She focuses particularly on Chadwick’s career as a church organist in order to contrast him with MacDowell. Although both men left the US in 1876 to study abroad, financial pressures forced Chadwick to abandon his studies and return to Boston in 1880, while MacDowell completed his degree and remained in Europe until 1888. This situation, combined with Chadwick’s lesser skill as an instrumentalist, consigned him to a comparatively provincial career, much of it spent on the organ benches of New England churches. While MacDowell’s academic credentials qualified him for a post at Columbia University, Chadwick had no such prospect. By considering MacDowell in his native context and by relating him to those who worked in analogous circles, Betz offers a valuable perspective on the composer’s career.

The remaining essys address MacDowell’s American life and legacy with varying degrees of effectiveness. Michael Joiner recounts the composer’s tenure at Columbia, detailing the conflict between MacDowell’s idealistic vision for music as part of a school of fine arts and the pragmatic perspective of Nicholas Murray Butler, who assumed Columbia’s presidency in 1901. A disillusioned MacDowell resigned in 1904. As his health declined, Marian oversaw the transformation of their New Hampshire farm into a creative retreat for artists of different disciplines—one that might embody the artistic integration Edward sought in vain at Columbia. As Robin Rausch explains in her chapter, the MacDowell Colony struggled initially to earn the trust of the local farming community. Marian thus organized a pageant that drew on local talent to narrate the history of the town using selections of Edward’s music. Not only did this 1910 production integrate the colony with the community, it helped to inaugurate a national pageant vogue.

The low point of the volume is Mark A. Radice’s essay “Parallels in the Careers of Edward A. MacDowell and Chou Wen-chung.” Despite the dissimilarity of these composers’ styles, and although they were born more than sixty years apart, one in the United States and the other in China, Radice is convinced that they are analogous. He cites three main commonalities: they both worked between cultures, they both spent periods of time in Boston and New York, and they both served on the music faculty at Columbia, where administrative duties impinged on their compositional productivity. These connections, while factual, are hardly exceptional. They probably qualify every composer who has held a post at Columbia. The comparison is arbitrary, which dooms the essay from the outset. Add to this a fragmentary organizational scheme, unfocused argumentation, and eccentric subheadings that quote, for no discernible reason, sources ranging from the Bible to Aristophanes to William Shakespeare, and the result is a text that should not have been published.

Radice’s chapter aside, this collection makes a solid and well-rounded contribution to MacDowell scholarship. Although the composer’s connections to the most prominent European names in music history are overemphasized, and while there remains much to learn about MacDowell in the context of his homeland, Bomberger’s book improves the state of the field. Anyone with an interest in the composer will find the volume interesting and accessible, and it should prove useful in both the undergraduate and graduate classrooms.

Myron Gray Haverford College


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