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Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: The MacDowell Colony — A haven for composers

October 07. 2018 10:53PM

Composer Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal of his “Mass” on Sept. 1, 1971. (Library of Congress)

From 1907 to 1947 the driving force behind the success of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire was its founder, Marian MacDowell (1857-1956). Until her retirement in 1947, she not only organized this artists’ retreat, presumably with help from others as time went on, but also served as its primary fundraiser.

When Marian purchased Hillcrest Farm in 1896 it included only a small farmhouse and a few out-buildings on 65 acres of land. In May 1950 the “Los Angeles Times” reported that the MacDowell Colony had grown to over 600 acres. There were now 30 buildings and “Five of these are living quarters, 25 are simple, secluded woodland studios where creative artists may work during the summer months in ideal surroundings undisturbed by practical cares…All day long they work in the studios; at noon a box lunch is left quietly on the doorstep to await the occupant’s convenience. There is no supervision and no compulsion.”

Notable among those who benefited from their time at the MacDowell Colony were composers. Like Marian’s late husband Edward MacDowell before them, they found that the quiet rural setting enabled them to create their best work. Over a 20-year period New Hampshire native Amy Beach (1867-1944), one of the top American composers of her era, spent several weeks each summer at the Colony. She so cherished her association with the institution that she bequeathed it the rights to her music.

Composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) spent part of the summer of 1925 at the MacDowell Colony, where he worked on his first major commission, “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra,” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He would enjoy seven more residencies, including in 1938 when he composed the music for the ballet “Billy the Kid.”

After the Great New England Hurricane barreled through Peterborough on Sept. 21, 1938, it took two men more than two hours to make their way through fallen trees to rescue Copland’s manuscript from his studio. He moved to another building and completed the work, which was premiered on Oct. 16, 1938 at the Civic Opera House in Chicago.

This year the music world is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, a cultural giant of the twentieth century. Bernstein (1918-1990) was a composer, conductor, educator, author, and pianist. His compositions included the scores for the 1944 Broadway musical (and 1949 film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) “On the Town,” the 1956 Broadway operetta (and 2003 TV movie) “Candide,” and the 1957 Broadway musical (and 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno) “West Side Story.”

Bernstein was a resident of the MacDowell Colony in 1962, 1970, and 1972. As he recalled in 1987, “All of those times I was writing works which had, at least in intent, a vastness, which were dealing with subjects of astronomical if not mystical and astrological dimension. This vastness is inherent somehow in this place.” During his 1970 residency Bernstein concentrated on developing his “Mass — A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.” The work had been commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C., on Sept. 8, 1971.

In late 1970, in his studio at the MacDowell Colony, Bernstein shaped his new work by writing notes on a series of index cards. The music for this production would be inspired by Gospel, sacred church music, and musical theatre—as well as by jazz, folk, rock, the blues, and Middle Eastern music. This large-scale theatrical work incorporated Latin passages from the Roman Catholic Mass and English-language text written by Bernstein in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz (who composed the hit 1971 musical “Godspell”).

When the Kennedy Center premiere performance of “Mass” ended, the audience rose in a 12-minute standing ovation, but the reviews were mixed. The work depicts an intense crisis of faith, and conveys an anti-war message, which was controversial during this era of the Vietnam War. To avoid embarrassment, President Richard Nixon had declined to attend. Bernstein’s “Mass” is rarely performed today, due in part to the difficulty of staging such an ambitious and technically demanding event. Nearly 500 performers were involved in the 2010 London revival.

Next week: Peterborough inspires “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

Aurore Eaton

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