By ROBIN RAUSCH
The Library of Congress marks the centennial of a celebrated American artists' colony with a special exhibition titled "A Century of Creativity: The MacDowell Colony 1907-2007."
On view through Aug. 18, it is the featured display in the "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" exhibition, located in the Southwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building at 10 First Street S.E., Washington, D.C.
The exhibit includes fine prints, holograph music scores, first editions, photographs and historical documents from the Colony's archives that chronicle its development and its influence on the arts in America.
Colony Fellows whose works are featured in the exhibit include composers Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Amy Beach; printmakers Benny Andrews, Tomei Arai, Milton Avery, Cynthia Back, Robert Cottingham, Janet Fish and Sandy Gellis; photographers Marion Belanger and Rosalind Solomon; poets Galway Kinnell, Kay Boyle and Edwin Arlington Robinson; novelists Willa Cather, James Baldwin and Spalding Gray; and playwrights Thornton Wilder and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward.
In the summer of 1925, a young composer named Aaron Copland needed some uninterrupted peace and quiet to finish his "Music for the Theatre," which was to be premiered by the eminent conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the fall. A friend suggested that Copland go to the MacDowell Colony, an artists' community in Peterborough, N.H., founded in 1907 by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian.
Among those Copland met at the MacDowell Colony in 1925 were writers Louis and Jean Starr Untermeyer, Elinor Wylie and William Rose Benét; composers Henry F. Gilbert and Roy Harris; and sculptor Tennessee Anderson, who sculpted a head of the composer that summer. It was the first time that Copland had interacted with artists working in different disciplines, and he credited the experience with changing the way he thought about art in America.
Between 1925 and 1956, Copland spent eight seasons at the MacDowell Colony, and he served as the Colony's president from 1962 to 1968. In 1961, he was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal, given annually since 1960 to an American artist who has made outstanding contributions to America's cultural heritage. In his acceptance speech on Medal Day, Copland acknowledged, "If my music has been connected in people's minds with America, if people find some reflection of the American spirit in my music, then certainly the Colony must have some of the credit."
Copland is just one of the roughly 6,000 creative artists whose careers have been fostered at the MacDowell Colony during the past 100 years. The enormous contribution to arts and letters made by these artists and the Colony's founders is the focus of the Library of Congress' exhibition titled
"A Century of Creativity: The MacDowell Colony 1907-2007," which is on view through Aug. 18 and accessible online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/macdowell/.
Made possible by the generous support of Lehman Brothers, the exhibition features works by Colony Fellows drawn from the Library's unparalleled holdings of fine prints, first editions and autograph music manuscripts. The exhibition also includes historical documents from the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection in the Library's Music Division and the records of the MacDowell Colony in the Library's Manuscript Division.
Edward Alexander MacDowell (1860-1908) was a celebrated American composer at a time when artists throughout the United States were struggling to establish a distinctive national cultural identity. Like most aspiring musicians in this country during the late 19th century, MacDowell went abroad for his musical education. He arrived in Paris in 1876 and remained in Europe for 12 years, believing that his chance of success as a composer would be greater there than in his own country.
In 1880, while living in Frankfurt, Germany, MacDowell met 22-year-old Marian Griswold Nevins (1857-1956), a fellow American who had come to Europe for musical instruction. She became MacDowell's piano student. The irony was not lost on her—she had not come all the way to Europe to study with an American!
The two became close friends, fell in love and married in 1884. As MacDowell's music began to earn recognition, American composers urged him to come home and become part of the effort to shape a new American music. In the fall of 1888, the MacDowells returned to the United States.
Marian MacDowell believed in her husband's talent as a composer. Wherever the couple lived, Marian made sure that he had a quiet place where he could work undisturbed. The couple spent the summer of 1890 in Peterborough, N.H., a charming little country town that had not yet been invaded by throngs of "summer people." The MacDowells fell in love with the area. When an abandoned farm came on the market in 1896, Marian MacDowell wasted no time purchasing it.
The farm consisted of about 80 acres, a few outbuildings and a house they called Hillcrest. It became a refuge from their new life in New York City, where MacDowell had just become Columbia University's first music professor. In 1898, Marian MacDowell had a log cabin studio built in the nearby woods, where Edward composed some of his most important piano works. It became the model for future studios to be constructed at the MacDowell Colony.
A gifted artist, MacDowell almost abandoned his musical career to study drawing. He was also interested in the relatively new discipline of photography. He was well-read, published a book of verse and dabbled in architecture. He designed most of the renovations to their New Hampshire farmhouse himself. His wide array of artistic interests undoubtedly influenced his belief in the interrelatedness of the arts and his conviction that artists working in different disciplines can benefit from contact with one another.
This idea of the correlation of the arts would become a basic tenet of the MacDowell Colony. It also informed MacDowell's interest in the work of his colleague Charles McKim, who founded the American Academy in Rome and spurred MacDowell's own attempt to establish a faculty of fine arts at Columbia University, an attempt that ultimately failed.
MacDowell resigned from Columbia in 1904 because of disagreements with the administration about curriculum. A traffic accident with a hansom cab around this time contributed to his physical and mental breakdown the following year. MacDowell's health continued to decline and he died on Jan. 23, 1908, at the age of 47.
An Artists' Colony Is Born
Edward's dying wish was that the Peterborough property be made available to other creative artists, allowing them to experience the same ideal conditions for creative work that he had enjoyed in his log cabin studio in the woods. The task was left to Marian MacDowell to make his dream a reality.
Spurred on by the great national affection for her husband and his musical compositions, Marian revived her long-abandoned piano career and began to travel throughout the United States, giving lecture recitals to promote the Colony. She left a network of MacDowell Clubs in her wake that became the nucleus of the Colony's support in its early years.
An ambitious pageant in 1910, based on the history of Peterborough and set to MacDowell's music, brought the Colony national attention. Before long, artists were seeking it out. As the works created by Colony Fellows began to receive accolades, the Colony came to be synonymous with artistic excellence. Many who came to work there became distinguished names in American arts and letters.
In addition to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is one of the best-known composers whose work was influenced by time spent at the MacDowell Colony. He composed his "Kaddish Symphony" and "Mass" while in residence in Peterborough.
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) is another well-known Colony Fellow. Wilder's play "Our Town," written in part at the Colony, is set in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, N.H., which is modeled on Peterborough. On display in the exhibition, the cover of the first edition of the play depicts a small town at the foot of a large mountain. It bears a remarkable likeness to the bird's-eye-view map of Peterborough on view above it. Rising in the distance is Mount Monadnock, a distinguishing feature of southwestern New Hampshire. Wilder, who also wrote portions of his breakout novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" at the MacDowell Colony, was devoted to Marian MacDowell. On exhibit is a letter he wrote to her in which he refers to himself as one of her "loyalest and most indebted boys."
Another American writer with close ties to the MacDowell Colony is DuBose Heyward (1885-1940). After reading aloud from his novel-in-progress "Porgy" at the Colony in 1924, his fellow colonists pronounced it "atrocious" and advised Heyward to return to writing poetry. Heyward finished it anyway. Playwright Dorothy Heyward (1890-1961), his wife, whom he had met at the MacDowell Colony in 1922, saw the dramatic possibilities in the story. She began working secretly on a dramatization of the book, although her husband had discouraged such treatment, considering the work more a character study. When George Gershwin read the novel and expressed interest in turning it into an opera, Dorothy Heyward revealed her partially finished play. Impressed with what she had done with the work, her husband collaborated with her on its completion.
The exhibit includes the Heywards' original copyright deposit for the play "Porgy," dated Aug. 2, 1926. "Porgy" became the basis for Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess." DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto and the lyrics to some of the opera's most beloved numbers such as "My Man's Gone Now" and "Summertime." Like Wilder, the Heywards were extremely fond of Marian MacDowell, who was godmother to their daughter. Among the correspondence between the Heywards and the Colony's founder is a typescript poem titled "Respite: To The MacDowell Colony," which is believed to be by DuBose Heyward.
A hermit thrush singing outside the window of her studio in 1921 moved composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) to notate the bird's song and use it in her piano piece, "A Hermit Thrush at Morn." She was one of many artists-in-residence who were inspired by the Colony's rural, natural setting.
Composer Ernst Toch (1887-1964) wrote his "Notturno, op. 77" at the Colony in 1953, after reflecting on the sounds he heard during an evening walk in the woods. A Colony forest scene is the subject of "Birches and Pines, MacDowell Colony Woodland" (1937) by printmaker Elizabeth White (1893-1976). And poet Galway Kinnell (b. 1927) wrote his "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock" after an early morning climb of the famed mountain during a Colony residency in 1964.
Urban artists such as abstract expressionist painter John von Wicht (1888-1970) were particularly influenced by the Colony's natural environment. In a letter to Marian MacDowell, he described his work as imbued with a "mysterious light never achieved before."
The often disparate group of artists gathered at the MacDowell Colony at any given time provides a unique snapshot of American cultural history. For example, a group photo of Colony Fellows from 1954, which is on display, includes novelist James Baldwin (1924-87), pioneers of electronic music Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911-90) and Otto Luening (1900-96), poet Peter Viereck (1916-2006), painter Milton Avery (1885-1965) and writer Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (1881-1965).
The relationships formed at MacDowell sometimes led to artistic collaborations, as did the friendship between composer Louise Talma (1906-1996) and Thornton Wilder. Wilder convinced Talma to work with him on an operatic version of his play "The Alcestiad." The manuscript score of the opera, which premiered in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1962, is featured in the exhibit.
Other chance encounters were more fleeting, but still powerful. In 1926, novelist Willa Cather expressed interest in seeing the work of artist Grant Reynard when she learned that he was a fellow Nebraskan. Reynard was painting large, modern canvases that summer. Over tea in his studio, Cather talked of how she had wished to do "fine" writing, but that her greatest success came from her nostalgia for her girlhood in Nebraska. Reynard later considered their conversation a pivotal moment in his career. As a result, he abandoned what he called his "arty ambitions" and turned to his own experiences and his Nebraskan roots for inspiration. Cather was working on "Death Comes for the Archbishop" at the Colony that summer. The first edition on display is inscribed, "For Mrs. Edward MacDowell with my love and admiration. Willa Cather, September 27, 1927."
Marian MacDowell outlived her husband by almost 50 years and became the foremost interpreter of his music in the country. For close to 25 years, she toured the country raising funds and awareness of the Colony's mission.
Her longevity added to her remarkable achievements. By the time she entered her tenth decade, she was something of a legend. She had brought the MacDowell Colony to life and saw it through two world wars, the stock market crash, the Depression and a hurricane that devastated New England in 1938.
At the age of 92, she was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her distinguished service in the arts.
When Marian MacDowell died on Aug. 23, 1956, at the age of 98, her obituary was carried in hundreds of newspapers across the country. Yet she was loath to take credit for the Colony, preferring to call herself "one of the help."
She summed up her extraordinary achievements quite simply: "I am a very ordinary woman who had an opportunity—and I seized it."
Robin Rausch is a specialist in the Library's Music Division and curator of the Library's MacDowell exhibition.
The MacDowell Colony exhibition is accessible at www.loc.gov/exhibits/macdowell/. The Library contracted with Columbia University's Digital Knowledge Ventures to produce original documentary video for use in the online exhibition. These short video clips of curators appear throughout the site to provide additional information about the exhibition themes and specific objects within the exhibition. Innovative technologies developed by the National Center for Accessible Media provide closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
In conjunction with the Library's MacDowell exhibition and Women's History Month, the Music Division presented a concert of works by women composers from the MacDowell Colony. The concert featured works by Gena Branscombe (1881-1977), Elizabeth Brown (b. 1953) and Louise Talma (1906-1996).
The Library will also offer a series of special programs, including poetry readings, concerts, a film series and gallery talks and curator-led tours of the exhibition.
A new 240-page hardcover book, "A Place for the Arts: The MacDowell Colony, 1907-2007," is available in the Library's Sales Shop. The book features essays by 14 distinguished writers, including Michael Chabon and the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and a history of the colony by Robin Rausch, curator of the exhibition. The book, which retails for $39.95, offers 140 historical and newly commissioned photographs. Credit card orders will be taken at (888) 682-3557. Online orders can be placed at www.loc.gov/shop/.