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ClassicsOnline Home » MACDOWELL: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Witches' Dance
By Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"EDWARD MacDowell's name has been kept in the public eye mainly through his charming piano miniature To a Wild Rose, a piece to which most young hands can aspire. But these two concertos are made of much tougher, more flamboyant stuff. MacDowell, musically educated in France and Germany, was a protégé of Liszt, who was responsible for getting the First Concerto published in 1884. Four years later, MacDowell returned to his native America, taking with him a style founded in the Lisztian tradition.
"As a virtuoso performer himself, MacDowell exploited the piano's potential to the full in both concertos, as does Stephen Prutsman in these engaging performances, supported by fine orchestral playing. The concertos are dazzlingly athletic and conceived on a grand scale, but at the same time the performers respond to the warmth generated by MacDowell's winning way with broad, Romantic melody. These characteristics - the dashing and the poetic - are separately and delightfully encapsulated in the two fill-ups, the Witches' Dance for piano and the Romance for cello."
Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 15 • Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23 • Witches’ Dance for piano and orchestra Op. 17, No. 2 • Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 35
‘The great young American Composer will not appear suddenly out of the West with an immortal masterpiece under his arm but will come instead out of a long line of lesser men—half geniuses perhaps—who’ll prepare the way’ – Aaron Copland
Edward MacDowell was born in New York in 1860. During his lifetime he was widely regarded as the most important American composer of the day. He had studied composition in Germany with Raff, was fêted as a piano virtuoso whose skills were admired by Liszt and eventually became Columbia University’s first Professor of Music. There he established a reputation as an inspiring and innovative teacher, but in 1904 was forced to resign after disagreements over the contents of the courses. Shortly afterwards he was run over in a Boston street by a horse-drawn cab and sustained head injuries. The accident probably hastened his premature death at the age of 47. His widow established a retreat for artists and musicians at their summer house in Peterborough, New Hampshire and the MacDowell Colony has since provided working space for generations of American musicians including Virgil Thompson, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland (who composed parts of Appalachian Spring there).
MacDowell’s reputation barely survived his death, despite the immense popularity of miniatures like To a Wild Rose which can still be found in thousands of piano stools across America. As so often, the new avant-garde had little time for work by the preceding generation and MacDowell, in common with other Romantic composer/pianists like Rubinstein and Rachmaninov, suffered the backlash. In MacDowell’s case, this neglect was compounded by criticisms that his work possessed no particularly national style or innovation despite its undoubted fine craftsmanship. For decades only the two piano concertos retained even a tentative foothold in the repertoire. Nearly a century later, however, his skilful and profoundly atmospheric music is finally being rediscovered.
As early as 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson had complained that ‘the mark of American merit…seems to be a certain grace without grandeur, not new but derivative, a vase of fair outline but empty’. During the 1890s Dvořák had called on American composers to turn to their ethnic folk music roots for inspiration—i.e. plantation spirituals and songs of the Indian tribes—but nationalism for its own sake cut little ice with MacDowell:
‘Purely national music has no place in art. What Negro melodies have to do with Americanism still remains a mystery to me.
This inevitably meant continuing to draw from European models. MacDowell’s family came from Irish/Scottish roots. His mother had encouraged the boy’s prodigious talents, organized occasional lessons for him with the great Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño and eventually took him to France when he was fifteen to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Marmontel (one of his fellow students there was Debussy).
MacDowell, however was uncomfortable in Paris. Maybe he had difficulty with understanding lectures in French—in any event, after hearing Anton Rubinstein play Tchaikovsky’s new B flat Concerto, he persuaded his mother that he would never acquire that level of virtuosity in France and so they moved on to Germany, where he studied composition with Joseph Joachim Raff and piano with Carl Heymann. It was a propitious move. Raff was well connected and impressed by the young American’s abilities. The writing of the First Piano Concerto seems to have been particularly fluent:
‘Raff abruptly asked me what I’d been writing. I, scarcely realising what I was saying, stammered out that I had a concerto. He walked out on the landing and turned back, telling me to bring it to him the next Sunday. In desperation, not having the remotest idea how I was to accomplish such a task, I worked like a beaver. Sunday came and I only had the first movement composed. I wrote him a note making some wretched excuse and he put it off until the Sunday after. Something happened then and he put it off another two days more; by that time I had the concerto ready.’
Raff sent MacDowell off to Weimar to perform the piece to Liszt in the spring of 1882 with Eugène d’Albert playing the second piano part. Liszt, by now Europe’s musical elder statesman and an uncanny spotter of young talent, was encouraging both the young composer’s skill and his piano playing. He arranged public performances of MacDowell’s earlier music and virtually instructed Breitkopf and Härtel to publish the concerto. It was a considerable compliment for the 22-year-old composer and MacDowell gave the first performance of the piece to great acclaim in Zurich later that year. The work is in three movements, the opening cadenza, without orchestral accompaniment, making an uncompromising announcement of MacDowell’s keyboard dexterity. The slow movement is based entirely on one gentle, folk-like melody, reminiscent of Grieg in its delicate scoring, with a central pastoral section brought into relief by forest calls from the horns. The last is marked Presto—a wickedly difficult romp for the soloist—which must have awakened barnstorming memories for the elderly Liszt in its section marked impetuoso e rapido possibile and in the helter-skelter prestissimo with which the work ends.
In 1884, MacDowell secretly married one of his piano students, Marian Nevins, and they settled for three years in Wiesbaden where he started work on a second concerto. In the meantime both Raff and Liszt had died and in 1888 MacDowell was persuaded to return home, rather unwillingly forced to supplement his composing income with a return to the concert platform.
At one recital an observant member of the Boston audience noted that ‘his finger velocity was the most striking characteristic of his playing. For him it was a mere bagatelle. He took to prestissimo like a duck to water. He could in fact play fast more easily than he could slowly.’
The first performance of the Second Concerto took place in Chickering Hall, New York on 5 March 1889 in a concert which also included the American première of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. One critic praised ‘a splendid composition, so full of poetry , so full of vigour as to tempt the assertion that it must be placed at the head of all works of its kind produced by a native or adopted citizen of America.’ He claimed to have enjoyed it far more than the new symphony. The work was dedicated to MacDowell’s old teacher, Teresa Carreño, whose colourful life included successful careers as a conductor and opera singer as well as concert pianist, while multiple marriages (including one to Eugene d’Albert) kept her name constantly in the papers. She would no doubt have approved of the unconventional structure of the piece. The first movement Larghetto calmato, for example, is actually the slowest with a shimmering, almost Wagnerian introduction, although it is swiftly interrupted by a flurry of virtuosic material for the soloist. The second is a fleet-footed, almost jazzy Scherzo and the third, after a slow introduction is actually, of all things, a high-spirited waltz.
The Witches’ Dance (or Hexentanz), originally for solo piano, is the second of two Fantasy Pieces, Op. 17 dating from 1884. It was one of the most popular of MacDowell’s pieces: it exists in several versions and even found its way into the encore repertoire of the great Leopold Godowsky. Later MacDowell became embarrassed by what he saw as the piece’s ‘flashiness’ and shallow outlook, although he was still playing it himself in 1891.
The little Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 35, was written just before the MacDowells returned to America in 1888 and was dedicated to the venerable Austrian cellist David Popper. Even MacDowell’s star-struck contemporary biographer, Lawrence Gilman, concedes that this is a slight piece ‘though not without a certain rather inexpensive charm’.
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