About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

November 5, 2013

Edward MacDowell; the best composer you don't hear

One of our board members and Chair of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Elizabethtown College, E. Douglas Bomberger, has just published "MacDowell" a marvelous biography of the composer Edward MacDowell (Oxford Press, 2013).

MacDowell enjoyed what we might call rock-star celebrity (absent the income) around the turn of the 19th century. Although born in the US, he earned that reputation by writing and performing his works, mostly for the piano with or without orchestra, in France and Germany over 12 years. Partly because of this fame the president and trustees selected him to serve as the first Chair of Music at Columbia University in 1896. In accepting, MacDowell had a grand vision: 
“First, to teach music scientifically and technically, with a view to training musicians who shall be competent to teach and compose. Second, to treat music historically and aesthetically as an element of a liberal education." 
Like Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz before him, MacDowell was also one of the greatest musician-writers about music. Some of his writing survives, including the notes for his introductory music class. You can download "Critical and Historical Essays" for free from iBooks.
"…in speaking of this art, one is seriously hampered by a certain difficulty in making oneself understood. To hear and enjoy music seems sufficient to many persons, and an investigation as to the causes of this enjoyment seems to them superfluous. And yet, unless the public comes into closer touch with the tone poet than that objective state which accepts with the ears what is intended for the spirit, which hears the sounds and is deaf to their import, unless the public can separate the physical pleasure of music from its ideal significance, our art, in my opinion, cannot stand on a sound basis."
Although recordings of his Piano concertos by Van Cliburn and Earl Wild gave his music a boost decades ago, his music deserves more hearing. I now take Edward MacDowell more seriously and suggest we all should. Douglas Bomberger's book is a good way to start. I downloaded To a Wild Rose from imslp and sat down to the keyboard for the first time in many years. I am also investigating the mysterious neurologic illness that ended MacDowell's life too early, at age 46.

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