At the beginning of the twentieth century, MacDowell was regarded as the single most important composer in the American canon. Future developments in American music dented that reputation, and his music went into a long eclipse, although its influence is strongly felt in the incidental music composed for American radio programs and animated cartoons of the 1930s. MacDowell's supporters are many, including eminent pianists such as André Watts and Constance Keene. They decry the neglect of MacDowell's works, and perhaps justly so; many are outstanding in quality, particularly the Sketches and the "Keltic" Sonata, the latter being an exploration of MacDowell's own Scots-Irish roots.
Edward MacDowell was born in New York City, the son of a milkman and his musically inclined spouse. At eight, MacDowell began piano lessons with a boarder in the home, Juan Buitrago. Through Buitrago, the boy MacDowell met pianist and international concert star Teresa Carreño, who also provided MacDowell with instruction and encouragement. In the late nineteenth century, the only way for a promising American musician to obtain a musical education was to travel to Europe. MacDowell and his mother made the trip to Paris in April 1877, MacDowell enrolling into the Paris Conservatoire. In 1878, MacDowell heard Nikolai Rubinstein in the first Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and with that, he decided to abandon Paris and study in Germany. He went first to Stuttgart, then Wiesbaden, and finally to Frankfurt where he studied with Joachim Raff and concertized in the presence of Franz Liszt. MacDowell began to take in piano pupils of his own, and one of them, Margaret Nevins, became MacDowell's wife in 1884. On Liszt's recommendation MacDowell began to pursue composition rather than performance, and his First and Second Modern Suites were widely successful on first publication, with Carreño helping to spread the word through her frequent programming of these works.
In 1888, Benjamin Johnson Lang, a close family friend, encouraged MacDowell to resettle in Boston, then the center of concert life in America. From this time until 1896 MacDowell enjoyed his greatest successes and patronage, and it is during this time that MacDowell wrote most of his music: the Second Piano Concerto, Indian Suite, Sonata Tragica, most of his songs, and the Woodland Sketches. This last named work contained both To a Water Lily and To a Wild Rose, both destined to become staples of American piano repertoire and known to every student.
In 1895, the MacDowells purchased a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, so that the nervy MacDowell could concentrate effectively on his work. In 1896, MacDowell was named head of the newly established music department at Columbia University, an important academic position at a major liberal arts college. MacDowell quickly won the admiration of his colleagues and students through his boundless energy and enthusiasm. However, in 1902 Columbia elected a new president, Nicholas Murray Butler, who did not share MacDowell's vision and sought to eliminate the music department altogether. This instituted a heated conflict between Butler and MacDowell that mainly served to undermine the health of the short-tempered composer, which was further aggravated by MacDowell's being run down in 1904 by a cab on the New York City streets. That year, MacDowell resigned from Columbia, and afterward his health began to decline rapidly. He died on the Peterborough farm on January 23, 1908 at age 47. In accordance with MacDowell's own wishes, MacDowell's widow later converted the farm into an artist's colony, which has become the best-known and most respected environment of its kind in the United States.