After Edward MacDowell’s death in 1908, would-be biographers had to pass muster with the composer’s wife, Marian MacDowell. Few did. Marian MacDowell fiercely protected her late husband’s reputation, and controlled his narrative until her death in 1956. By then MacDowell’s music had fallen from favor, displaced by the work of a new generation of American composers. The groundbreaking dissertation [End Page 280] of Margery Morgan Lowens, “The New York Years of Edward MacDowell” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1971), was the first scholarly examination of MacDowell’s life and music. In 1998, Alan Howard Levy published his Edward MacDowell, an American Master (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press), the first study to make use of the trove of MacDowell correspondence to Templeton Strong that had been sealed for fifty years at the Library of Congress. Levy, a cultural historian, concentrated on the composer’s life and did not discuss the music. Now, more than 100 years since Edward MacDowell’s death, a comprehensive study of the man and his music is at last available: MacDowell by E. Douglas Bomberger, the latest entry in Oxford University Press’s Master Musicians Series.
Bomberger’s brilliant sleuthing has uncovered new information that illuminates even the most familiar facts of MacDowell’s life. He offers some provocative new theories on the composer’s mental health and final illness. He emphasizes MacDowell’s early years in particular, questioning the existing narrative and identifying many long-told anecdotes as spurious.
Consider, for example, MacDowell’s time at the Paris Conservatoire, a well-known episode in his life. Bomberger explores the competitive environment and internal politics of the conservatory in unprecedented detail. The government-funded institution provided free tuition for those talented enough to pass the grueling entrance examinations. The admission of foreign students was controversial, and there were few of them. MacDowell’s acceptance in 1877 was a remarkable achievement for the sixteen-year-old. His abrupt departure a year later has never been adequately explained.
Legend says that after hearing Nicolai Rubinstein play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto at the Exposition Universelle, MacDowell realized that he would never equal such playing if he stayed in Paris. Bomberger puts this tale to rest. MacDowell was not in Paris when Rubinstein performed; he was vacationing in Émancé. When MacDowell returned to the conservatory in the fall of 1878, the administration had reinstated an old and long-disregarded rule in an effort to weed out underperforming students. Any student who competed in the annual concours for three consecutive years without winning a prize would be expelled, as would any student who won a prize but did not advance in standing during the following two years. MacDowell was not affected by this, but his best friend Michael (Chichi) Castellanos, who most agreed had been robbed of a prize on two earlier occasions, was expelled. MacDowell left the conservatory in solidarity with his friend, a move that tells us much about the man he would become.
Bomberger devotes an entire chapter to MacDowell’s Quaker roots. The composer’s father, Thomas MacDowell, came from a long line of Quakers, and the author assumes that the young MacDowell attended Quaker meetings as a child: “These experiences of silent contemplation must have been among Edward MacDowell’s earliest childhood memories” (p. 4). He sees Quaker influence in such personality traits as the composer’s extreme sensitivity to aural stimuli and his propensity for endlessly revising his compositions. But MacDowell’s mother was not Quaker. Thomas MacDowell “married out” when he wed Frances (Fanny) Mary Knapp, “an action with serious consequences” (p. 5). The record books of the Religious Society of Friends Monthly Meeting contain no mention of the couple’s marriage or the births of any of their children, who were not considered Quaker. Fanny was “officially ignored” (p. 6).
Bomberger makes no mention of Fanny’s religious background. But she did not embrace Quaker tradition. She seemed to flout it with abandon, especially the prohibition...