That his songs, as a whole, are comparable in inherent artistic consequence with his sonatas, or with such things as the “Woodland Sketches,” the “Sea Pieces,” and the “New England Idyls,” I do not believe, although I readily grant the beauty and fascination of many passages, and of certain pages in which he is incontestably at the height of his powers. Here, as in his writing for piano and for orchestra, one will find abundant evidence of his distinguishing traits—sensitiveness and fervour of imagination, a lovely and intimate sense of romance, whimsical and piquant humour, virility, passion, an unerring instinct for atmospheric suggestion. But there are times when, despite his avowed principles in the matter, he sacrifices truth of declamation to the presumed requirements of melodic design—when he seems to pay more heed to the unrelated effect of tonal contours than to the dramatic or emotional needs of his text. As an instance of his not infrequent indifference to justness of declamatory utterance, examine his setting of “in those brown eyes,” at the bottom of the last page of “Confidence” (op. 47), and of the word “without” in the fourth bar of “Tyrant Love” (op. 60). I dwell upon this point, not in any spirit of captiousness, I need scarcely say, but because it exemplifies a fairly persistent characteristic of MacDowell’s style as a song writer.
Of that other trait to which I have referred—his not exceptional preoccupation with a purely musical plan at the expense of dramatic and emotional congruity—the attentive observer will not want for examples in almost any of MacDowell’s song-groups. As a single instance, I may allege the run in eighth-notes which encumbers the setting of the second syllable of the word “again,” in the fourth bar of “Springtide” (op. 60). Such infelicities are difficult to account for in the work of a musician so exceedingly sensitive in matters of poetic fitness as he. It may be that his acute sense of dramatic and emotional values operated perfectly only when he was unhampered by the thought of the voice.
I have dwelt upon this point because it should be noted in any candid study of his traits as a song writer. Yet it is not a defect which weighs heavily against him when one considers the musical quality of his songs as a whole. Not, as a whole, equal to his piano music, they are admirable and deeply individual; and the best of them are not surpassed in any body of modern song-writing.