Amazing Speed


Although he was one of America’s finest composers of piano music, Edward MacDowell was a reluctant performer. A long-time friend described MacDowell’s playing:

“As he never felt quite sure that what he was composing was worthwhile, so in the matter of playing in public he was so self-distrustful that when he came on the stage and sat down at the piano stool he hung his head and looked a good deal like a school boy detected in the act of doing something he ought not to do.

“I never could persuade him to play for me. I once asked Paderewski to play for me his new set of songs, and he promptly did so. But MacDowell always was ‘out of practice’ or had some other excuse, generally a witticism or a bit of sarcasm at his own expense.”

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

A few years earlier, in 1888, MacDowell was described by a concertgoer as a virtuoso with an unusual trait:

“The speed of his fingers was the most striking characteristic of his playing. He took to prestissimo like a duck to water. He could, in fact, play fast more easily than he could play slowly. One of his ever-present fears was that in performance his fingers would run away with him. And many hours were spent in endeavors to control such an embarrassing tendency. This extraordinary velocity…invariably set his listeners agape and was always one of the chief sensations at his concerts.”

Despite his self-doubts, MacDowell was capable of far more than speed. In 1894 a New York critic referred to MacDowell’s performance of his second piano concerto as “a success for both pianist and composer, such as no American musician has ever won before a metropolitan concert audience.” The reviewer added, “again and again he had to get up and bow after every movement of his concerto. For once a prophet has had great honor in his own country. [He played with that splendid kind of virtuosity which makes one forget the technique.]”