Grieg & MacDowell

A musical correspondence and friendship

Grieg

Photo: Public Domain / Bergen Public Library
Edvard Grieg at the piano.

Dr. Bill Halvorsen
Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc.

In December, 1905, as American composer Edward MacDowell lay gravely ill with the sickness that was soon to take his life, Edvard Grieg wrote a touching letter to Mrs. MacDowell expressing “my own and my wife’s heartfelt compassion” to the MacDowells in their hour of trial. “I am a great admirer of MacDowell’s muse,” he wrote, “and I would regard it as a severe blow if his best creative period should have to be terminated so abruptly.”

Who was Edward MacDowell, and how did Grieg come to know him so well that he felt impelled to write upon hearing of his illness?

Parallel lives

MacDowell

Photo: Public domain / Library of Congress
American composer Edward MacDowell.

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was the most prominent American composer of his generation and one of the first composers from the New World to achieve international stature. The pattern of his life was similar to that of Grieg in many small ways. 

Like Grieg, he went abroad at age 15 to commence his professional studies, going first to Paris, where he enrolled in the Conservatoire, then to Gernany (Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, and Frankfurt), where he continued his studies in theory, composition, and piano. Like Grieg, he was a concert pianist and wrote much of his music for the piano. Also like Grieg, he is often called a “miniaturist,” despite having written a considerable amount of music in the larger forms.

MacDowell also resembled Grieg in that he was an exceptionally fine writer. Many of the texts of his songs are from his own hand, and he often penned verses that he attached as “mottos” to his piano and orchestral works to suggest the mood that he was attempting to evoke in the music. 

But unlike Grieg, MacDowell did not aspire to be a “national” composer. His goal was simply to write good music, and it was immaterial to him whether or not others perceived his music as having an “American” flavor. Thus, he made relatively sparse use of specifically American materials in his music. Two compositions in which his American roots are explicitly evident, however, are the Indian Suite for orchestra, No. 2, Op. 48 and New England Idyls for piano, Op. 62. He also paid homage to the American writer of children’s stories, Joel Chandler Harris, in “Of Br’er Rabbit ” Op. 61, No. 2.

The Grieg-MacDowell correspondence

Grieg

Photo: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Mrs. MacDowell wrote in 1950 that her husband and Grieg “never saw each other, but they corresponded constantly.” Only six letters are extant, however: three from MacDowell to Grieg, and three from Grieg to MacDowell—and the internal evidence seems to indicate that they are the only letters the two men ever exchanged. Though both write in the elegant style characteristic of the time, MacDowell’s letters also express the awed respect of a younger man for his world-famous Norwegian colleague.  

In the earliest extant letter, dated Oct. 10, 1899, MacDowell requested Grieg’s permission “to dedicate to you my third sonata for piano, about to be published.” The letter then continues: “A number of years ago a critic in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt said that my music itself was a dedication to you…. I will confess that the critic was right to some extent, for your music lies closer to my heart than I can well say. I have dedicated much to you in my thoughts….”

Grieg apparently was unaware that MacDowell was fluent in German, for his brief reply of Oct. 26 is in what he himself describes as “bad English.” He thanked MacDowell for his letter and his kind words and added, “It will be a great honor and pleasure for me to accept your dedication.”  

The sonata was not published as quickly as MacDowell had expected, and he evidently felt obliged to explain the delay to his celebrated dedicatee. On Dec. 13, 1899, he sent Grieg a second letter telling him of the delay and, among other things, thanking him “for your good words, which have the same sincere ring as your music. You, of course, must realize what it means to me to receive encouragement from you, and how your friendly interest will inspire me to do better things.” He requested that when Grieg received the music he “tell me squarely what you disagree with the most in it.” He concluded by saying, “The name of Grieg is adored from one end of this country to the other.”

MacDowell’s so-called “Norse” sonata for piano, Op. 57, was finally published in early 1900. The “motto” attached to this work is one of the composer’s finest literary creations.

Image: Public domain / Lawrence Gilman, The Project Gutenberg eBook, Edward MacDowell
Facsimile of letter from Grieg to MacDowell, accepting the dedication of the “Norse” Sonata.

On June 30, 1900, Grieg sent MacDowell a letter (in German) containing substantive and highly complimentary comments on the sonata. “In the handling of your Nordic material,” he wrote, “you are only partly under Wagner’s influence. And that is good…. Not infrequently in the sonata, your imagination was in the far north. Higher praise I could not give. For the motto you have chosen is not just an external adornment. Far more, it obligates the musician to visit in imagination the very places where the poet has dwelt.”

MacDowell also dedicated his Fourth Piano Sonata, the “Keltic,” Op. 59, to Grieg, and the story of how he happened to do so is rather amusing. According to Mrs. MacDowell, her husband had intended to dedicate this work to one Fiona McLeod, whose writings had largely inspired the work. The composer wrote to McLeod requesting permission to do so, but receiving no answer, he decided to dedicate it to Grieg instead. 

Some years later Mrs. MacDowell learned that “Fiona McLeod” was a pseudonym for a writer by the name of William Sharp.  She further learned that Sharp had in fact received the request while traveling in Italy, and had written to MacDowell giving his enthusiastic approval for the dedication. He had given the letter and money for postage to an Italian boy, who apparently pocketed the money and destroyed the letter; in any case MacDowell never received it. Fortunately, Grieg was unaware of the circumstances that led to his being “accidentally” honored by MacDowell for a second time.

As with the Third Sonata, MacDowell prefaced this one with some lines of original poetry. This time, however, MacDowell did not ask Grieg’s permission for the dedication: he just assumed it. On Feb. 25, 1901, he wrote to Grieg (in German) telling him what he had done: “I have dared to embellish yet another sonata with your name. This fourth sonata is to me of Nordic character, and you were so often in my mind that I could not forego attaching your name to it as a kind of motto.  The thing is wild Irish… and perhaps you can take pleasure in thinking of it as from a comrade who seeks his ideals in Scandinavia.”

Grieg’s reply (in German) is dated Jan. 11, 1902. Once again he is highly complimentary, characterizing the work as “very powerful, often daring, yes, thank goodness, even reckless.” He went on to say, “Perhaps you are familiar with a remark by the late [Moritz] Hauptmann regarding [Niels] Gade’s first orchestral works: ‘Sea gulls hover over his scores.’ That was very beautifully said, and I would like to say something equally beautiful to you, for example: ‘The tones of the skald resound in your sonata!’ Hauptmann’s picture is as superior, however, as is an original to a copy.”

Grieg’s influence on MacDowell

Edward and Marian MacDowell

Photo: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
Edward and Marian MacDowell on a walking tour in Switzerland, 1886.

Although MacDowell derived his inspiration from many sources, it is evident that Grieg was an important model for his work as a composer, especially in his earliest works. His First Piano Concerto, Op. 15 written when he was just 24, is reminiscent of Grieg’s much more famous concerto with respect to key (A minor), tonal language, and lyrical character. It probably was this work more than any other that led the German critic to say of MacDowell’s music that it was “itself a dedication to Grieg.” It is a fine work that deserves to be performed more frequently than it is. 

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces probably also were the model for the many fine collections of short piano pieces that MacDowell published at various times throughout his career. One should, of course, not expect to hear in MacDowell’s piano works the folkish melodies and modal harmonies that characterize so much of Grieg’s music, but the musical language in these pieces is very similar to that of the more cosmopolitan Grieg. MacDowell’s most successful works in this genre include Woodland Sketches, Op. 51, Sea Pieces, Op. 55, Fireside Tales, Op. 61, and New England Idyls, Op. 62.

Interestingly, the two sonatas dedicated to Grieg do not appear to have been modeled after Grieg’s piano sonata in any identifiable way. Both are mature works, written near the end of MacDowell’s tragically short life, and by this time his craft had presumably matured to the point where he no longer required models. Nonetheless, the dedications seem entirely appropriate by virtue of the deep interest in Nordic and Celtic heroic tales, which he shared with Grieg. The dedications were perhaps the composer’s way of thanking his Norwegian friend for being the example that had so inspired him in his younger days.      

Be that as it may, these two sonatas are without doubt the choicest fruits of MacDowell’s creative genius. No. 3 immediately transports us to the world of the sagas, a vanished world in which skalds sing of heroic deeds, great loves, and battles won. The atmosphere in No. 4 is equally heroic, but the heroism in this case is that of the Gaelic legends, recounted in a series of epic tales known collectively as the “Cycle of the Red Branch.” Both sonatas place considerable demands on the performer, but they are a joy to listen to.  

Concluding comments

Like many composers of the late Romantic period, MacDowell has been neglected and almost forgotten in recent years. His splendid piano sonatas, including the two dedicated to Grieg, are almost never performed, and only a handful of recordings have been made of his most important compositions. Surely it is time for America to rediscover this native son, who was one of the first composers to secure a place for our country on the musical map of the world.

I shall conclude with an anecdote related by Marian McDowell in a biography of her husband written long after his untimely death. According to Mrs. MacDowell, her husband typically began his work day by writing down an original musical theme that might be used in some future composition. He would set it aside, then take a look at it some time later. If he thought it had some merit, he would keep it for possible future use. If he did not think well of it, he would deposit it in the wastebasket. One day, according to Mrs. MacDowell, she came into his composer’s hut and retrieved a discarded musical theme from the wastebasket. She rather liked it and said as much to her husband. On her advice, he kept it and later decided to use it. It became the main theme of his short piano piece, “To a Wild Rose”—his most famous composition! I think that if Grieg were with us today he would be one of the first to say: it is time to retrieve the rest of MacDowell’s music from the wastebasket of history.

To learn more about Edvard Grieg, visit: www.griegsocietyusa.org

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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