MacDowell’s impulse toward significant expression was not slow in declaring itself. The first “modern suite” (op. 10), the earliest of his listed works, which at first glance seems to be merely a group of contrasted movements of innocently traditional aspect, with the expected Praeludium, Presto, Intermezzo, Fugue, etc., contains, nevertheless, the germ of the programmatic principle; for at the head of the third movement (Andantino and Allegretto) one comes upon a motto from Virgil—“Per amica silentia lunae,” and the Rhapsodic is introduced with the
“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entrate”
of Dante. The Praeludium of the second piano suite, op. 14, is also annotated, having been suggested by lines from Byron’s “Manfred.” In the “Zwei Fantasiestuecke”, op. 17—“Erzaehlung” and “Hexentanz”—but more particularly in the “Wald-Idyllen” of op. 19—“Waldesstille,” “Spiel der Nymphen,” “Traeumerei,” and “Driadentanz,”—a definite poetic concept is implied. Here the formative influence of Raff is evident. The works which follow—“Drei Poesien” ("Nachts am Meere,” “Erzaehlung aus der Ritterzeit,” “Ballade"), and the “Mondbilder,” after Hans Christian Andersen—are of a similar kind. The romanticism which pervades them is not of a very finely distilled quality: they are not, that is to say, the product of a clarified and wholly personal vision—of the vision which prompted the issue of such things as the “Woodland Sketches,” the “Sea Pieces,” and the “New England Idyls.” In these earlier works one feels that the romantic view has been assumed somewhat vicariously—one can imagine the favourite pupil of Raff producing a group of “Wald-Idyllen” quite as a matter of course, and without interior conviction. Nor is the style marked by individuality, except in occasional passages. There are traces of his peculiar quality in the first suite,—in the 6/8 passage of the Rhapsodie, for example,—in portions of the first piano concerto (the a piacere passage toward the close of the first movement is particularly characteristic), in the Erzaehlung, and in No. 3 (Traeumerei) of the Wald-Idyllen; but the prevailing note of his style at this time was, quite naturally, strongly Teutonic: one encounters in it the trail of Liszt, of Schumann, of Raff, of Wagner.
Not until one reaches the “Hamlet and Ophelia” is it apparent that he is beginning to find himself. This work was written before he had completed his twenty-fourth year; yet the music is curiously ripe in feeling and accomplishment. There is breadth and steadiness of view in the conception, passion and sensitiveness in its embodiment: It is mellower, of a deeper and finer beauty, than anything he had previously done, though nowhere has it the inspiration of his later works.