AT ITS performance of Jan. 24, 1908, the Philharmonic Society of New York City changed its program at the last minute to include the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. This was performed in memory of the beloved composer Edward MacDowell, who had died the day before at the age of 47. The New York Times reported that this solemn piece was “listened to with deep attention and the little handclapping that broke out after its close was quickly stilled with a realization of the object of its performance.”
At the time of his death, Edward MacDowell was recognized as America’s greatest composer. Many of his most celebrated works had been created at his and his wife Marian’s summer home, Hillcrest Farm in Peterborough. In 1907, while Edward was incapacitated due to a fatal illness, Marian began carrying out the dream the couple had long shared — to transform their farm into an artists’ colony. She formed the Edward MacDowell Memorial Association to serve as the legal underpinning for the development of an institution that would endure after Edward’s death. Marian deeded Hillcrest Farm to the Association, which was the beginning of the MacDowell Colony.
That year this new artists’ colony welcomed its first two summer residents. These were accomplished sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears, who had worked as an assistant to the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and her sister and frequent model, the writer Mary Mears. The new MacDowell Colony soon began attracting other notable people who were involved in the visual arts, music, and literature. These temporary residents benefited from time spent enjoying the quiet beauty of the landscape, and from the genial social interaction encouraged within the casual setting.
In the spring of 1908 the Edward MacDowell Memorial Association received around $30,000 from the Edward MacDowell Fund, which had been set up by the Mendelssohn Glee Club of New York City. This was a prestigious men’s music organization which Edward had conducted from 1896 to 1898. Its members wanted to assure that Marian had the money needed to care for Edward during his long illness, so they held benefit concerts and solicited private donations. This contribution of the balance of the fund, given after Edward’s death, provided essential financial support for establishing the MacDowell Colony.
Marian aspired to attract the most talented artists, musicians, composers, and writers to the MacDowell Colony, and she also wanted to assure the financial support of donors. She felt that she needed to find a way to publicize the Colony’s existence. Her answer was to hire literature professor and playwriting instructor George Pierce Baker of Harvard University to produce a grand historical pageant in Peterborough that would tell the story of the town through the music of Edward MacDowell.
The “Pageant of Peterborough” took place on Aug. 16, 18 and 20, 1910. The setting was a natural amphitheater on the MacDowell Colony grounds, where wooden benches were set up so that the audiences would have a view of Mount Monadnock. The pageant was entitled “The House of Dreams,” inspired by the words of Edward MacDowell that were inscribed on a bronze tablet at his gravesite nearby: “A house of dreams untold, that looks over the whispering treetops, and faces the setting sun.” The official purpose of the pageant was to “stimulate local pride in past achievement, strengthen community spirit, and reveal unexpected artistic resources.”
The elaborate production included 200 local people dressed in period costumes made by seamstresses from the area. Through words, music, pantomime, and dance, they presented romanticized interpretations of various episodes from Peterborough’s history. The performers were accompanied by a large orchestra and chorus.
Businesses in Peterborough and the surrounding towns were closed on the performance days because so many people were involved in the production, and everyone else wanted to be there to watch. The performances also attracted members of the upper class who came from afar to hear Edward MacDowell’s music, and to see what the widow of the famous composer was up to in rural New Hampshire.
The spectacular “Pageant of Peterborough” accomplished Marian MacDowell’s goal of bringing positive attention to the MacDowell Colony, which included an illustrated feature article in the New York Times.
Next week: Marian MacDowell’s tireless work.