Piano Concerto No. 2
Duration: 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 30, 1937, Howard Hanson conducting, John Powell, soloist
Edward MacDowell also traveled to Europe to prove himself "serious." A talented pianist, he first studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where for a time he and Claude Debussy were students together. MacDowell next moved to Germany to study with Joseph Joachim Raff, who was a friend of Franz Liszt. Liszt, the most celebrated pianist/composer of the day, arranged for the 22-year-old MacDowell's first piano concerto to be performed and published.
The young MacDowell married in 1884 and courageously decided to devote himself entirely to composing. Things didn't go so well: MacDowell was going broke, and his two greatest champions - Raff and Liszt - died; as a result, MacDowell returned to America in 1888. During those impecunious years, he completed his second piano concerto.
The Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 23, was not a forward-looking work or a nationalistic work. His inspirations for the piece were Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt. Still, it is a quirky and a very individual piece. To begin with, the slow movement is most often the second movement in concertos. Not so here. MacDowell begins in the middle, as it were, with a slow and expansive first movement. It is almost as if we are dropped off in some faraway place in mid-brood. The piano enters fully charged. Remember this moment, too, because MacDowell replicates it again and again in the first movement, and repeats it verbatim near the beginning of the third movement.
The second movement is upbeat and virtuosic, in a fast dance tempo (Presto giocoso). The action is furious throughout, certainly paying a musical and emotional debt to Liszt. Today we might even call it a bit schmaltzy, but for a pianist needing a performance vehicle that dazzled the ears and the eyes, this music was perfect. Indeed, it was music like this that helped MacDowell become the best-known American composer/pianist of his day.
In the Finale, we hear the first movement theme again. MacDowell then takes us in a new direction entirely, an excursion that moves between gloomy and madcap, but the triumphant and optimistic conclusion of this work is quintessentially American.
MacDowell introduced the Concerto himself in 1889 with the Philharmonic Society of New York under the direction of Theodore Thomas.
Composer/writer Dave Kopplin is on the faculty of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.