THE MacDOWELL COLONY in Peterborough is one of the most important cultural institutions in the United States. Its mission is “to nurture the arts by offering creative individuals of the highest talent an inspiring environment in which they can produce enduring works of the imagination. The sole criterion for acceptance is artistic excellence, which the MacDowell Colony defines in a pluralistic and inclusive way.”
Since its founding in 1907, over 8,000 MacDowell “Fellows” have spent time at this residential facility nestled in pleasant woods and fields. Some of the most influential figures in the arts have found inspiration as MacDowell Fellows, including composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland; playwright Thornton Wilder; and novelist and essayist James Baldwin.
How does such a venerated institution come to exist and thrive? The story of the MacDowell Colony is the story of pianist, composer and teacher Edward MacDowell and his wife, pianist Marian MacDowell. Edward Alexander MacDowell was born in New York City in 1860, the son of Thomas MacDowell, a milk dealer, and Frances Knapp MacDowell. Edward studied piano at a young age, showing great aptitude. When he was 17, he moved to Paris with his mother, where he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory on a scholarship. After two years there, he went on to Frankfurt, Germany, where he continued his music education. He completed his studies in 1881, and then remained in Germany where he performed, composed music, and taught piano.
In 1884 Edward married Marian Griswold Nevins. Three years older than Edward, she was the daughter of New York City banker David H. Nevins and Cornelia L. Perkins Nevins. Cornelia died when Marian was 8 years old. The little girl learned how to play the piano under the tutelage of her aunt Caroline Perkins, a piano teacher. The talented Marian decided to pursue a performing career, so in 1880 she traveled with a chaperone to Frankfurt, Germany, to study.
For three years Marian was one of Edward MacDowell’s students. The two fell in love and were married in Waterford, Conn., in 1884. The couple returned to Europe where they lived first in Frankfurt, and then in Darmstadt and Wiesbaden, Germany. In 1886 Marian fell ill and nearly died. After this episode, it was determined that she would be unable to bear children.
By 1887 Edward had given up teaching, and was spending much of his time composing, the work he loved doing above all. As music scholar Lawrence Gilman wrote in 1908, “He might well have felt some pride in the sum of his achievements at this time … He had published a concerto and two orchestral works of important dimensions — ‘Hamlet and Ophelia’ and ‘Lancelot and Elaine;’ most of the music that he had so far written had been publicly performed, and almost invariably praised with warmth; and he was becoming known in Europe and at home.”
But Edward wasn’t making enough money to support Marian and himself, so the couple returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1888. They settled in Boston, where Edward concentrated on playing the piano, including giving solo recitals, and performing with the Boston Symphony and other orchestras. He also returned to teaching piano.
In 1896 Edward was recruited to became the first music professor at Columbia University in New York City where he took on the enormous responsibility of creating a music department from scratch. That same year Marian bought Hillcrest Farm in Peterborough so that she and Edward would have a pleasant place to stay in the summers. Here, at the farm, Edward found the time and solitude he needed. His sojourns in Peterborough inspired him to write songs, and to complete a variety of instrumental music for piano, including concertos and orchestral suites, and he also produced transcriptions of early keyboard pieces, including many from the Baroque era.
At Hillcrest Farm Marian and Edward entertained their musician and artist friends. They found that this stimulating social activity, combined with the sweet inspiration which nature provides, were ideal for creative pursuits. The couple began talking about turning their farm into an artists’ colony. Their dream would come true in time, but not without the two devoted partners having to face personal tragedy.
Next week: Edward MacDowell is overcome by forces he cannot control, and how Marian carried on.