This sonata marks the consummation of his evolution toward the acme of powerful expression. It is cast in a mould essentially heroic; it has its moods of tenderness, of insistent sweetness, but these are incidental: the governing mood is signified in the tremendous exordium with which the work opens, and which is sustained, with few deviations, throughout the work. Deirdre he has realised exquisitely in his middle movement: that is her image, in all its fragrant loveliness. MacDowell has limned her musically in a manner worthy of comparison with the sumptuous pen-portrait of her in Standish O’Grady’s “Cuculain”: “a woman of wondrous beauty, bright gold her hair, eyes piercing and splendid, tongue full of sweet sounds, her countenance like the colour of snow blended with crimson.”
In the close of the last movement we are justified in seeing a translation of the sublime tradition of Cuchullin’s death. This it is which furnished MacDowell with the theme that he celebrates in the lines of verse which I have quoted above. I believe that he was planning an orchestral setting of this scene; and that, had he lived, we should have had from him a symphonic poem, “Cuchullin.”
The manner of the hero’s death is thus described by Standish O’Grady: “Cuculain sprang forth, but as he sprang, Lewy MacConroi pierced him through the bowels. Then fell the great hero of the Gael. Thereat the sun darkened, and the earth trembled ... when, with a crash, fell that pillar of heroism, and that flame of the warlike valour of Erin was extinguished.... Then Cuculain, raising his eyes, saw thence northwards from the lake a tall pillar-stone, the grave of a warrior slain there in some ancient war. With difficulty he reached it and he leaned awhile against the pillar, for his mind wandered, and he knew nothing for a space. After that he took off his brooch, and removing the torn bratta [girdle], he passed it round the top of the pillar, where there was an indentation in the stone, and passed the ends under his arms and around his breast, tying with languid hands a loose knot, which soon was made fast by the weight of the dying hero; thus they beheld him standing with the drawn sword in his hand, and the rays of the setting sun bright on his panic-striking helmet. So stood Cuculain, even in death-pangs, a terror to his enemies, for a deep spring of stern valour was opened in his soul, and the might of his unfathomable spirit sustained him. Thus perished Cuculain ...”
Superb as this is, it is paralleled by MacDowell’s tone-picture. That, for nobility of conception, for majestic solemnity and pathos, is a musical performance which measures up to the level of superlative achievements.
If there is anything in the literature of the piano since the death of Beethoven which, for combined passion, dignity, breadth of style, weight of momentum, and irresistible plangency of emotion, is comparable to the four sonatas which have been considered here, I do not know of it. And I write these words with a perfectly definite consciousness of all that they may be held to imply.