The songs of MacDowell make an important section of the catalogue of his works, and are chiefly notable for their beauty and tenderness of expression, and he was at his very best when writing in the pure lyric form. His efforts comprising Ops. 56, 58 and 60 are of a rare and expressive order. He also composed a number of fine part-songs for male-voice choruses. Most of his best vocal works are set to his own verses, as he could seldom satisfy himself that words ally themselves naturally with music.
Poetry furnishes a composer with inspiration for expression which, MacDowell felt, could not be clearly demonstrated in a small space, and that the music therefore is apt to distort the words if they are harnessed to it in song form. Most of MacDowell’s finest pianoforte pieces bear verses in addition to titles, thus definitely indicating what the music is intended to suggest. His verses are of an uncommon and gifted order, for he was a true poet in both the literary and the musical sense. His poems were collected some years after his death and published under the title of Book of Verses, by Edward MacDowell. They are valuable for their own sake, quite apart from their connection with his music, and make very beautiful reading. A number of his wonderfully illuminating Columbia University lectures, to which we have referred more fully in the preceding chapter, were collected and edited by W.J. Baltzell and published in 1912 under the title of Critical and Historical Essays (Lectures delivered at Columbia University) by Edward MacDowell.
MacDowell’s work is of the kind that appeals intimately to those only who understand and feel the significance of things musical. His compositions are seldom mentioned in those terms of effusive adoration so often applied to the works of many well-known composers, neither do they figure largely in the recitals of popular pianists, for minds saturated with sensuous sentiment and the worship of tradition cannot easily follow his pure idealism and the significance of the things which he loved and expressed in his music. His compositions are “modern” in outlook, but remarkably free in spirit and never savour of the type of modernism that is little more than gilded pedanticism.
Mention must be made of MacDowell as a pianist. He was capable of playing with remarkable swiftness of finger action, and his tone production ranged from the most delicate refinement to overwhelming floods of orchestral-like strength. In playing his larger works, he loved to make his music sweep in great waves, and to introduce the most wonderful contrasts and varieties of tone colour. At his recitals he played other music besides his own, and became distinguished as a pianist, although his interpretations were always more personal than traditional.