MACDOWELL AS COMPOSER
Macdowell’s position to-day in creative musical art remains the same as it was twenty years ago—one of unassailable independence and individualism. Although these two factors, whether assailable or not, must be a feature of any composer who lays claim to greatness, in MacDowell’s case they are so marked as to form the strongest bulwark of his natural position among great music makers. His tone poetry is of a quality and power that is not quite like that of any other composer, and in the portraying, or suggesting, as he preferred to call it, of Natural, Historical and Legendary subjects he stands alone. Superbly gifted as a lyrical poet both in the literary and the musical sense, and with a most refined and keen feeling for the dramatic, he spoke with a voice of singular eloquence and power. Probably his greatest achievement was his remarkable, unerring ability to create atmospheres of widely varied kinds in his music, and in this respect there is no composer quite his equal. The soft beauty, grandeur, vastness and might of Nature; the joys and sorrows of Humanity; the romance of History and imaginative Legend; the buoyancy of sunshine and wind; the mysteriousness of enchanted woods; all these he translated with inimitable vividness into music. He could suggest with as definite and unmistakable a musical atmosphere, the simple beauty of a little wild flower, as the might of the sea; as well the fanciful and imaginative scenes of fairy tale as the wild and lonely vastness of the great American prairies; as well the joviality and humour of his countrymen as the elemental strength, and rude, stern manliness of the North American Indian, and the heroic, stirring atmosphere of the ancient bards.
That MacDowell was greater than is generally recognised in England is an opinion that increasingly forces itself on all who study and become closely acquainted with his best work. He is generally admitted to be great in small, lyrical forms, but it is insufficient to regard him merely as a miniaturist. The form of the well-known Sea Pieces (Op. 55) for pianoforte is small, for example, and yet the material is big and grand enough for symphonic work. The equally well-known Woodland Sketches, Op. 51, contain pieces of charming and delicate conception, as well as broader writing, and can hardly be considered as the products of a restricted inspiration. The poetry is so unmistakably fresh and individual, and the atmosphere so vividly suggested, that the ability of the composer to condense his material into such small compass is remarkable to even the most casual observer. Far from shewing weakness, the small form of MacDowell’s compositions is a proof of his strength, for few other composers have been able to suggest such big scenes, often of far-reaching and wide significance, on such small canvasses as those on which he painted his tone poems.