To gain a true sense of MacDowell’s place in American music it is necessary to remember that twenty-five years ago, when he sent from Germany, as the fruit of his apprenticeship there, the earliest outgivings of his talent, our native musical art was still little more than a pallid reproduction of European models. MacDowell did not at that time, of course, give positive evidence of the vitality and the rarity of his gifts; yet there was, even in his early music,—undeniably immature though it was, and modelled after easily recognised Teutonic masters,—a fresh and untrammelled impulse. A new note vibrated through it, a new and buoyant personality suffused it. Thenceforth music in America possessed an artistic figure of constantly increasing stature. MacDowell commanded, from the start, an original idiom, a manner of speech which has been recognised even by his detractors as entirely his own.
His style is as pungent and unmistakable as Grieg’s, and far less limited in its variety. Hearing certain melodic turns, certain harmonic formations, you recognise them at once as belonging to MacDowell, and to none other. This marked individuality of speech, apparent from the first, became constantly more salient and more vivid, and in the music which he gave forth at the height of his creative activity,—in, say, the “Sea Pieces” and the last two sonatas,—it is unmistakable and beyond dispute. This emphatically personal accent it was which, a score of years ago, set MacDowell in a place apart among native American music-makers. No one else was saying such charming and memorable things in so fresh and individual a way. We had then, as we have had since, composers who were entitled to respect by virtue of their expert and effective mastery of a familiar order of musical expression,—who spoke correctly a language acquired in the schools of Munich, Leipzig, and Berlin. But they had nothing to say that was both important and new. They had grace, they had dexterity, they had, in a measure, scholarship; but their art was obviously derivative, without originality of substance or a telling quality of style. It is not a needlessly harsh asseveration to say that, until MacDowell began to put forth his more individual works, our music had been palpably, almost frankly, dependent: an undisguised and naive transplantation, made rather feeble and anaemic in the process, of European growths. The result was admirable, in its way, praiseworthy, in its way—and wholly negligible.
The music of MacDowell was, almost from the first, in a wholly different case. In its early phases it, too, was imitative, reflective. MacDowell returned to America, after a twelve years’ apprenticeship to European influences, in 1888, bringing with him his symphonic poems, “Hamlet and Ophelia” and “Lancelot and Elaine,” his unfinished “Lamia,” his two orchestral paraphrases of scenes from the Song of Roland, two concertos, and numerous songs and piano pieces. Not greatly