Any one who should undertake casually to examine MacDowell’s songs seriatim, beginning with his earliest listed work in this form—the “Two Old Songs,” op. 9—would not improbably be struck by an apparent lack of continuity and logic in the initial stages of his artistic development. At first glance, MacDowell seems to have attained a phenomenal ripeness and individuality of expression in these songs, which head the catalogue of his published works; whereas the songs of the following opus (11-12) are conventional and unimportant. The explanation, which I have elsewhere intimated, is simple. The songs of op. 11 and 12, issued in 1883, were the first of his Lieder to appear in print; the songs numbered op. 9, which would appear to antedate them in composition and publication, were not written until a decade later, when they were issued under an arbitrary opus number as a matter of expediency. Their proper place in MacDowell’s musical history is, therefore, about synchronous with the mature and characteristic “Eight Songs” of op. 47. From the five songs now published in one volume as op. 11 and 12, the progress of MacDowell’s art as a song writer is both steady and intelligible.
He has not been especially prolific in this field, when one thinks of Grieg’s one hundred and twenty songs, and of Brahms’ one hundred and ninety-six; not to mention Schumann’s two hundred and forty-eight, or Schubert’s amazing six hundred and over. MacDowell has written forty-two songs for single voice and piano, together with a number of ingenious and effective pieces for men’s voices and for mixed chorus.
He has avowed his methods and principles as a song writer. In an interview published a few years before his death he declared his opinion to be that “song writing should follow declamation”—that the composer “should declaim the poems in sounds: the attention of the hearer should be fixed upon the central point of declamation. The accompaniment should be merely a background for the words. Harmony is a frightful den for the small composer to get into—it leads him into frightful nonsense. Too often the accompaniment of a song becomes a piano fantasie with no resemblance to the melody. Colour and harmony under such conditions mislead the composer; he uses it instead of the line which he at the moment is setting, and obscures the central point, the words, by richness of tissue and overdressing; and all modern music is labouring under that. He does not seem to pause to think that music was not made merely for pleasure, but to say things.