IN 1884 THE 24-year-old, up-and-coming classical music composer, concert pianist, and piano teacher Edward MacDowell married 27-year-old Marian Griswold Nevins in a ceremony in Waterford, Conn. They had gotten to know each other in Frankfurt, Germany, where Edward had been Marian’s piano teacher. The couple began their married life in Germany, and in 1888 they moved to Boston where Edward gained success as a concert pianist and piano teacher. In 1896 Edward and Marian relocated to New York City, where Edward established the first music program at Columbia University at the invitation of the school’s president, Seth Low.
Also in 1896 Marian bought Hillcrest Farm in Peterborough, N.H. There Edward retreated to his little log cabin studio in the summers, where he composed some of his best music. His body of work included the 1896 orchestral composition, “Indian Suite,” which was inspired by Native American music. In 1903 he donated his handwritten score for the piece to the Library of Congress. This prompted the institution to continue collecting original manuscripts of musical compositions by American composers, and this collection now serves as an incomparable resource for music lovers. In 1898 Edward wrote one of his most popular works, “Sea Pieces,” a suite for solo piano in the romantic style, with movements evocatively entitled “From a Wandering Iceberg,” “Starlight,” and “Nautilus.”
In 1902 Nicholas Murray Butler became the new president of Columbia University. He would serve in this position for 43 years, leaving an indelible imprint on this premier institution. Butler sought to reshape the university, and among his innovations was combining the painting, sculpture, comparative literature, and music programs under the auspices of a new Department of Fine Arts. Edward MacDowell strongly disagreed with this arrangement, and his complaints resulted in him having a contentious relationship with Butler.
In 1904 Edward was honored for his contributions to the field of music by being elected as one of the first seven members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fellow honorees were authors William Dean Howells, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge; and statesman John Hay. Two of these men shared something in common with Edward MacDowell, as they also owned homes in New Hampshire — Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, and John Hay in Newbury.
While this well-deserved recognition marked the zenith of Edward MacDowell’s career, it could not prevent his life from falling apart. That same year, Edward suddenly resigned from Columbia, apparently overcome by stress. He suffered from insomnia and depression. His faculties began to decline, and by the spring of 1905 he could no longer compose or teach. It was reported in the press that he was considered to be a “case of an over-sensitive, highly-wrought brain burning itself away in overwork.”
For the next three years Marian MacDowell devoted herself to caring for her husband as he descended into dementia. Edward’s biographer Lawrence Gilman wrote in 1908, “There were indications of an obscure brain lesion, baffling but sinister. Then began a very gradual, progressive, and infinitely pathetic decline … It was clear almost from the start that he was beyond the aid of medical science … His mind became as that of a little child. He sat quietly, day after day, in a chair by a window, smiling patiently from time to time at those about him, turning the pages of a book of fairy tales that seemed to give him a definite pleasure …”
Edward MacDowell died on Jan. 23, 1908 at the age of 47 in the Westminster Hotel in New York City, with Marian by his side. She accompanied his body home to Peterborough on the train. On Jan. 26 Edward was laid to rest at Hillcrest Farm in a ceremony attended by 300 townspeople and other friends, in a grave “on an open hill-top, commanding one of the spacious and beautiful views that he had loved.” Edward could not have known that Marian was already working to fulfill their once-shared dream of transforming Hillcrest Farm into an artists’ colony.
Edward MacDowell left behind 130 fine musical compositions. In 1940 the U.S. Postal Service commemorated his legacy with a 5 cent stamp bearing a drawing of his handsome face.
Next week: Marian MacDowell and the early years of the MacDowell Colony.