Acclaimed American composer Edward MacDowell wanted to give other artists the opportunity to experience the perfect conditions for creative work that he had found on his farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. After his death in 1908, it was left to his widow, Marian MacDowell, to create the artists' retreat that he envisioned.
Marian Nevins traveled to Frankfurt, Germany in 1880, intending to study piano with Clara Schumann. She was referred instead to the brilliant young American musician Edward MacDowell. Hesitant to work together at first, they fell in love and were married in 1884. MacDowell felt that his chance of success as a composer was greater in Europe than in America, so the couple settled in Wiesbaden, Germany. Poor but content, they shared a love of the outdoors and enjoyed exploring the countryside on foot.
Edward and Marian MacDowell on a Walking Tour in Switzerland, 1886. Gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (1). Digital ID #ppmsca-13426
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As MacDowell's music earned recognition, American composers began to seek him out. They urged him to come home and become part of the effort to create a distinctive American music. In 1888, with their finances running low, the MacDowells returned to the United States. They set up house in Boston, where MacDowell was soon in demand as a teacher, composer, and performer. He was celebrated as an original American composer with an international reputation, which was almost unheard of in his day.
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Like many American composers at the time, MacDowell turned to the music of Native Americans for inspiration. He did not believe, however, that a truly national music would result from simply quoting indigenous tunes. It would evolve gradually as American composers cultivated their own individual styles. MacDowell gave the manuscript of his Indian Suite to the Library of Congress in 1903. It was the catalyst that led to the Library's preeminent collection of American musical autographs.
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On January 23, 1896, the Boston Symphony Orchestra featured Edward MacDowell performing his Piano Concerto, op. 15, in a program at the Metropolitan Opera House that also included the premiere of the composer's Indian Suite. In the audience that night was Seth Low, president of Columbia University. Low was so favorably impressed that he decided to offer MacDowell a newly endowed position that would establish the first department of music at Columbia.
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MacDowell conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club for two years after moving to New York in 1896. This photo was taken during an annual outing enjoyed by members of the men's chorus and their wives. MacDowell is in the foreground wearing a cap. In 1906, the Mendelssohn Glee Club launched The Edward MacDowell Fund in response to the news that MacDowell was seriously ill. Not needed for the composer's care, the fund became seed money for The MacDowell Colony, which began officially in 1907.
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Edward MacDowell died early in 1908, and it was left to his widow to bring the Colony to life. Marian MacDowell soon realized that she needed a major public relations campaign to earn support and draw new talent. In 1910, she asked George Pierce Baker, professor of dramatic literature at Harvard, to produce and direct a pageant using MacDowell's music to tell the story of Peterborough. Baker described it as "perhaps the most delightful dramatic task I have ever faced."
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The Peterborough Pageant was a critically acclaimed success. People came from across the country to see it. The eclectic audience included farmers' wives and mill workers, who mingled with the musical and artistic elite, including at one performance Isabella Stewart Gardner, wealthy patron of the arts from Boston. Some compared Marian MacDowell to Richard Wagner's widow Cosima, and speculated that Peterborough might become the 'Bayreuth of America.'
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In the early years, when the Colony closed for the season, Marian MacDowell went on tour. The network of women's clubs and music clubs that she cultivated around the United States formed the base of the Colony's support in its formative years. Marian MacDowell spoke passionately about the work of the Colony, and she played her husband's compositions as no one else could. This was her annual routine for almost twenty-five years, undertaken to whittle away at the Colony's ever-present deficit.
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Recommended as a quiet little town in lovely country that had not been invaded by "the summer people,"Peterborough, New Hampshire, became the MacDowells summer home in 1896 when they bought an old farm on the outskirts of town. Peterborough became the couple's refuge from their hectic new life in New York. MacDowell would frequently express the desire to "get back to my farm and begin life again," after he began teaching at Columbia University.
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