The Patron Saint—Edward MacDowell

Link to the second article in the Lenny Bernstein series.

The Patron Saint—Edward MacDowell

(Third in a series.)

By Denis Whitaker

“If my music has been connected in people’s minds with America, if people find some reflection of the American spirit in my music, then certainly the Colony must have some of the credit.”
—Aaron Copland, in his acceptance speech
on Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony, 1961.

Edward MacDowell

Edward MacDowell

“So,” you ask, “‘Lenny & Friends,’ right?”

That’s right…

“So, how’s a guy that died, what, 10 years before Lenny was even born get to be in the concert?”

That’s a good question. And the answer involves a trip to Paris, a glee club, an abandoned farm in New Hampshire that turns into an artists’ colony, a horrible taxi accident, and a gold medal that Lenny was given. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

The American pianist and composer, Edward MacDowell, was born in 1860 in New York City. Since there weren’t opportunities for American-born composers at home, his mother took him to Europe when he was 17. He enrolled at the Paris Conservatory on a scholarship for foreign students, where he studied alongside Claude Debussy. It was there that he played a piano recital for Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, who considered him a major talent. He stayed in Europe, teaching and performing, for several years. In 1884, he married a former American student of his, Marian Nevins, whom he’d taught in Frankfurt. She ends up playing a big part in this story.

They returned to America in 1888, and in 1896 he was asked to be the very first music professor at Columbia, where his task would be to create a Music Department virtually from scratch. For his first couple of years there he led the Mendelssohn Glee Club, and wrote several pieces for them. (One of those songs will be on our program.) He left Columbia in 1904, leaving in a huff after a nasty row with the new President.

Meanwhile, Marian knew that her husband needed a quiet place to compose. She found an abandoned farm on 80 acres in rural New Hampshire. They bought Hillcrest Farm, and made it their summer home. After being shown the door at Columbia, Edward fell into a depression, and his health deteriorated. Later that same year, 1904, he was run over by a hansom cab on Broadway, injuring him seriously and contributing to his advancing psychiatric disorder. His former students from the glee club led a campaign to raise money for his care. In 1907, the MacDowells deeded the farm to the newly established MacDowell Colony, the first artists’ residency program in America. Edward died in 1908, at age 47, and is buried at the Colony.

At the time of his death he was regarded as a great American composer with an international reputation. That reputation has diminished in the ensuing years, and now he’s known mostly for piano miniatures such as “To a Wild Rose,” surely his most famous composition. Bernstein conducted several of his orchestral pieces in his early years with the New York Philharmonic. (His Second Piano Concerto used to be played frequently; it deserves a revival!) Marian outlived her husband by almost 50 years, and was regarded as the foremost champion of his music, and of the Colony.

Since 1908 the MacDowell Colony has proven to be a priceless gift to American artists. Its resident fellows read like a who’s who of American arts, including authors Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Alice Walker. In music, the list has Aaron Copland (who wrote Appalachian Spring there,) Amy Beach, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein, who completed Mass there, in 1970. To bring it closer to home, Berkeley writer Michael Chabon finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay at the MacDowell Colony, and currently serves as the President of its Board of Directors.

Leonard Bernstein's notes on index cards, made at the MacDowell Colony in 1970, show the movements of his Mass taking shape

Leonard Bernstein’s notes on index cards, made at the MacDowell Colony in 1970, show the movements of his Mass taking shape.

In 1960, the Colony established the Edward MacDowell Medal, awarded annually for distinguished contribution to American arts and culture. Wilder won the first award; Copland, the second; Robert Frost, the third. Leonard Bernstein won the MacDowell Medal in 1987, and Steven Sondheim in 2013. Bernstein remarked that it was the first award he had received solely for his compositions. “Medal Day” is a major event at the Colony, with a huge tent for the presentations, along with picnics and tours of the 32 artist’s studios. From the beginning the ceremony has included an address by an equally worthy artist about the recipient. When Lenny received the award, the speaker was his old friend, the composer and diarist, Ned Rorem. We’ll have more to say about him in another article.

Oakland East Bay Men’s Chorus is excited to be paying our small tribute to this true patron saint of the American arts. The MacDowell song that we’re performing is “Midsummer Clouds,” published in 1898, and written for his own men’s chorus at Columbia. It’s a lovely, literally dreamy, reverie; an American form of Impressionism akin to what he’d encountered in Paris, complete with exotic scales, parallel movement, and time seeming to stand completely still.

This is a concert not to be missed!