Edward MacDowell Biography

(Composer and Pianist)

Birthday: December 18, 1860 (Sagittarius)

Born In: New York City, New York, United States

Edward MacDowell was an American pianist and music composer best known for composing the second piano concerto and several short piano suites. Edward became interested in music at an early age and took his early music lessons at home. In his early teen years, he moved to Paris to study piano at the Paris Conservatory. Afterwards, he took lessons in piano and composition at the Frankfurt Conservatory. Very quickly, Edward mastered the art and began performing in concerts. He also taught piano for a few years in Germany. After returning to America in 1888, he settled in Boston first and then New Hampshire. He was best known more for his small piano pieces than his big concerts compositions. His small compositions such as Woodland Sketches and Sea Pieces are remembered and performed to this day. Edward composed more than 100 piano compositions, orchestra compositions and songs. He also served as an administrator and a music professor at Columbia University. After falling out with the University president, he resigned from his position and spent his final few years amidst deteriorating mental and physical health. He is regarded as one of the greatest pianists and composers in American history.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Edward Alexander MacDowell

Died At Age: 47


Spouse/Ex-: Marian MacDowell

father: Thomas

mother: Frances MacDowell

Born Country: United States

American Men New Yorkers Musicians

Died on: January 23, 1908

place of death: New York City, New York, United States

Notable Alumni: Hoch Conservatory

City: New York City

U.S. State: New Yorkers

More Facts

education: Hoch Conservatory

Childhood & Early Life

Edward MacDowell was born Edward Alexander MacDowell, on December 18, 1860, in New York City, USA. Born to Thomas and Frances MacDowell, Edward grew up in a Quaker family. Edward had an instant attraction toward music since he was a kid. His mother understood her son’s interest and enrolled him on music classes when he was 8 years old.

In the early phase of his training, Edward took music lessons from Juan Buitrago, a famed Columbian violinist. Juan was living with Edward’s family at that time. Edward learned violin and moved on to learning piano with a popular Cuban pianist named Pablo Desverine and later, Teresa Carreno.

Edward was a quick learner and money was not an issue in the family. His mother was fully supportive of her young son’s ambitions and decided to take him to Paris to receive advanced training in playing the piano. When Edward was 15, his mother took him to Paris to enrol him into the Paris Conservatory. The expenses were taken care of by the competitive scholarship that Edward received.

His extraordinary skills further got him enrolled on Antoine François Marmontel’s classes in France. He was one of the most sought after piano teachers in Paris who only accepted 13 students at a time. Among the 230 applicants, Edward was in the top 13 and continued his lessons. However, he soon got bored of it and decided to study in Frankfurt, Germany.

Without any significant trouble, Edward got enrolled at the Frankfurt Conservatory. There, he received piano lessons from Carl Heymann and composition with Joachim Raff. By the early 1880s, Edward had become an exceptional piano player and a master composer. He began performing in Weimar and soon embarked on his professional career.

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In 1881, Edward completed his studies and decided to stay and work in Germany for a while. In 1881, he was appointed as a teacher at the Schmitt's Akademie für Tonkunst, Darmstadt. He also composed and performed onstage around this time.

He composed two piano concertos in 1884 and 1890. His first concerto was not regarded as good as his second one. However, his Second Concerto is now considered much inferior to his later work, which exhibited a complete range of his talents.

He also wrote a few sonatas around this time such as Tragica, the Eroica, the Norse, and the Keltic. However, none of his earlier works matched the popularity of Twelve Virtuoso Studies for piano which he later composed in 1894. It showed his maturity as a pianist. His subsequent works such as To a Wild Rose and To A Water Lily also exhibited his talents as a master.

From the mid to late 1880s, he devoted all his time exclusively to compositions and thus faced financial difficulties. His teaching stints were also not paying him well enough and he decided to leave Germany for good and return to the United States. He settled in Boston in the autumn of 1888, the year he returned back to his home country. He immediately began working and quickly, his popularity spread far and wide.

However, during most of his career, his smaller piano pieces got way more popular than his full-scale piano concerts. Some of his most popular piano songs are Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, Fireside Tales, and New England Idylls. As for his orchestral writing, two of his works became pioneers, the First Suite for Orchestra and the Indian Suite. He composed both of them when he was living and working in Boston. He stayed there for about a decade and later moved to New Hampshire, where he bought a farm in 1896.

In the gorgeous rural atmosphere of Hillcrest farm, Edward became way more productive and creative. There he completed two piano concertos, piano suites, songs, orchestral suits etc. In addition, he also took on the pseudonym Edgar Thorn and published 13 piano pieces.

Edward also got into teaching in the mid-1890s. After joining the faculty of Columbia University in 1896, he remained the sole music professor there for two years. In addition, he also served as the administrator of the University's music department.

He also directed Mendelssohn Glee Club and began an all-male chorus at Columbia University. However, his time at Columbia University was not completely stress-free. He was the only music professor there for two years and hence, he had a massive workload. In addition, he was also struggling with the administrative duties and constant conflicts with the new president of the university, Nicholas Butler. Edward was stressing the requirement to establish a new fine arts department to teach other art forms such as painting, sculpting etc. The new university president was not in favour of that.

Finally, in February 1904, Edward resigned from the university and it caused a massive controversy. Edward was already prone to depression and suffered from the seasonal affective disorder. In the early few years of the 20th century, Edward composed some popular piano compositions such as Fourth Sonata and Fireside Tales etc. Following the Columbia University fiasco in 1904, Edward became completely inactive and remained mostly anonymous until his demise.

Personal Life & Death

Edward MacDowell married Marian Nevins in 1884. She was an American student who studied under Edward in Frankfurt. A few years later, Marian suffered from an illness that made her unable to carry children.

Edward struggled with psychiatric disorders for most of his life. After his resignation from Columbia University, his depressive episodes increased. He also struggled with insomnia, for which he was taking medicines and bromide poisoning was also described as a cause of his death.

In 1904, he also had a cab accident, which is known to further intensify his mental and physical health.

He passed away on January 23, 1908. His wife took care of him during his final days. He was said to have become mentally unstable in his final years.


Edward MacDowell was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Princeton University in 1896. He was also one of the first seven members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Most of the greats in American classical music were known to be the flagbearers of the new eras of music. Edward was known as one of the best music composers of the late romantic era, a fading musical period.

He was known as one of the greatest American pianists and composers of all time. The Edward MacDowell Association was started in his name, which supported many American composers.

In February 2000, he was inducted into the national Classical Music Hall of Fame.

See the events in life of Edward MacDowell in Chronological Order

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