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Edward MacDowell and the formation of an American musical culture

Richard Daniel Fountain, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


At the turn of the twentieth century, Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) was regarded both domestically and internationally as the premier American composer of his time. Today, composers such as Ives and Cowell are seen as the true patriarchs of American music, while MacDowell and several of his allegedly “conservative” contemporaries are deemed derivative and unimaginative. In reality, MacDowell understood that American art music was still in its infancy. He saw the need to grow a culturally rich and musically knowledgeable American public, conversant in the language of art music, familiar with its history and able to discriminate among the use, abuse or denial of its expressive power. To this end, he worked within a musical language familiar to his listeners, neither pandering to popular taste nor creating works so abstract or obtuse as to be inaccessible. In this way, MacDowell hoped to persuade the American public that art music is a vital means of cultural and personal expression rather than being a purely ornamental diversion. This study will begin by surveying MacDowell's life as a composer, pianist and educator. Subsequent chapters will outline MacDowell's organic philosophy of music, examine his piano works with special emphasis on his aesthetic and artistic goals, and undertake a focused analysis of the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E minor, op. 59, the “Keltic” Sonata. MacDowell's “Keltic” Sonata is his last large-scale solo piano work, based on the ancient Irish legends of the warrior Cuchullin and the enchanting Deirdre. This work exemplifies MacDowell's musical philosophy, allowing the poetic idea to shape the form of the work. This music is filled with sentiment, passion and tragedy, but also shows profound restraint and nobility. Finally, we will look at the historical and aesthetic background for MacDowell's virtual absence from the contemporary American musical scene, and give reasons for his inclusion among the great figures in American art music. ^

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Fountain, Richard Daniel, "Edward MacDowell and the formation of an American musical culture" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3302728.