With the exception of the “Tragica,” the poetic substratum of the sonatas has been avowed with more or less particularity. In the “Tragica”—his first essay in the form—he has vouchsafed only the general indication of his purpose which is declared in the title of the work, though it is known that in composing the music MacDowell was moved by the memory of his grief over the death of his master Raff (it might stand even more appropriately as a commentary on the tragedy of his own life). The tragic note is sounded, with impressive authority and force, in the brief introduction, largo maestoso. The music, from the first, drives to the very heart of the subject: there is neither pose nor bombast in the presentation of the thought; and this attitude is maintained throughout—in the ingratiating loveliness of the second subject, in the fierce striving of the middle section, in the noble and sombre slow movement,—a largo of profound pathos and dignity,—and in the dramatic and impassioned close (the scherzo is, I think, less good). Of this final allegro an exposition has been vouchsafed. While in the preceding movements, it is said, he aimed at expressing tragic details, in the last he has tried to generalise. He wished “to heighten the darkness of tragedy by making it follow closely on the heels of triumph. Therefore, he attempted to make the last movement a steadily progressive triumph, which, at its close, is utterly broken and shattered, thinking that the most poignant tragedy is that of catastrophe in the hour of triumph.... In doing this he has tried to epitomise the whole work.” The meaning of the coda is thus made clear: a climax approached with the utmost pomp and brilliancy, and cut short by a precipitato descent in octaves, fff, ending with a reminiscence of the portentous subject of the introduction. It is a profoundly moving conclusion to a noble work—a work which Mr. James Huneker has not extravagantly called “the most marked contribution to solo sonata literature since Brahms’ F-minor piano sonata”; yet it is not so fine a work as any one of the three sonatas which MacDowell afterward wrote. The style evinces, for the first time in his piano music, the striking orchestral character of his thought—yet the writing is not, paradoxical as it may seem, unpianistic. The suggestion of orchestral relationships is contained in the massiveness of the harmonic texture, and in the cumulative effect of the climaxes and crescendi. He conveys an impression of extended tone-spaces, of a largeness, complexity, and solidity of structure, which are peculiar to his own music, and which presuppose a rather disdainful view of the limitations of mere strings and hammers; yet it is all playable: its demands are formidable, but not prohibitive.
[Illustration (Score): FACSIMILE OF A PORTION OF THE MS. OF THE “SONATA TRAGICA”]