That his songs constitute almost a third of the entire bulk of his work is not without significance; for his melodic gift is, probably, the most notable possession of his art. His insistence upon the value and importance of the melos was, indeed, one of his cardinal tenets; and he is, in his practice,—whether writing for the voice, for piano, or for orchestra,—inveterately and frankly melodic: melodic with a suppleness, a breadth, a freshness and spontaneity which are anything but common in the typical music of our day. It is a curious experience to turn from the music of such typical moderns as Loeffler and Debussy, with its elusive melodic contours, its continual avoidance of definite patterns, its passion for the esoteric and its horror of direct communication, to the music of such a writer as MacDowell. For he has accomplished the difficult and perilous feat of writing frankly without obviousness, simply without triteness. His melodic outlines are firm, clean-cut, apprehendable; but they are seldom commonplace in design. His thematic substance at its best—in, say, the greater part of the sonatas, the “Sea Pieces,” the “Woodland Sketches,” the “Four Songs” of op. 56—has saliency, character, and often great beauty; and even when it is not at its best—as in much of his writing up to his opus 45—it has a spirit and colour that lift it securely above mediocrity.
It must have already become evident to anyone who has followed this essay at an exposition of MacDowell’s art that his view of the traditional musical forms is a liberal one. Which is briefly to say that, although his application to his art of the fundamental principles of musical design is deliberate and satisfying, he shares the typical modern distaste for the classic forms. His four sonatas, his two piano concertos, and his two “modern suites” for piano are his only important adventures in the traditional instrumental moulds. The catalogue of his works is innocent of any symphony, overture, string quartet, or cantata. The major portion of his work is as elastic and emancipated in form as it is unconfined in spirit. He preferred to shape his inspiration upon the mould of a definite poetic concept, rather than upon a constructive formula which was, for him, artificial and anomalous. Even in his sonatas the classic prescription is altered or abrogated at will in accordance with the requirements of the underlying poetic idea.