The second piano concerto (op. 23), completed a year later, is fairly within the class of that order of music which it has been generally agreed to describe as “absolute.” It is innocent of any programme, save for the fact that some of the ideas prompted by “Much Ado About Nothing,” which were to form a “Beatrice and Benedick” symphonic poem, were, as I have related in a previous chapter, incorporated in the scherzo. Together with its companion work, the first piano concerto; the “Romanza” for ’cello and orchestra; the concert study, op. 36, and such conventional morceaux as the early “Serenata” and “Barcarolle” (of which, it should be noted, there are extremely few among his productions), it represents the very limited body of his writing which does not, in some degree, propose and enforce a definite poetic concept. Not elsewhere in his earlier work has MacDowell marshalled the materials of his art with so confident an artistry as he exhibits in this concerto. In substance the work is not extraordinary. The manner derives something from Grieg, more from Liszt, and there is comparatively little disclosure of personality. But the manipulation is, throughout, the work of a music-wright of brilliant executive capacity. In fundamental logic, in cohesion, flexibility, and symmetry of organism, it is a brilliantly successful accomplishment. As in all of MacDowell’s writing, its allegiance is to the basic principles of structure and design, rather than to a traditional and arbitrary formula.
The succeeding opus (24), comprising the “Humoreske,” “March,” “Cradle Song,” and “Czardas,” is unimportant. Of the four pieces the gracious “Cradle Song” is of the most worth. The group as a whole belongs to that inconsiderable portion of his output which one cannot accept as of serious artistic consequence. With the “Lancelot and Elaine” (op. 25), however, one comes upon a work of the grade of the “Hamlet and Ophelia” music. MacDowell had a peculiar affinity for the spirit of the Arthurian tales, and he was happy in whatever musical transmutation of them he attempted. This tone-poem is, as he avows, “after Tennyson.” The work follows consistently the larger action of the poem, and musical equivalents are sought and found for such crucial incidents as the meeting with Elaine, the tournament, Lancelot’s downfall, his return to the court and the interview with Guinevere, the apparition of the funeral barge, and the soliloquy of Lancelot by the river bank. The work is dramatically conceived. There are passages of impressive tenderness,—as in the incident of the approaching barge; of climactic force,—as in the passage portraying the casting away of the trophies; and there are admirable details of workmanship. The scoring is full and adroit, though not very elaborate. As always with him, the instrumental texture is richly woven, although his utilisation of the possibilities of the orchestra is far from exhaustive. One misses, for example, the colouring of available harp effects,