While exploring the works of Copland and Barber, I encountered lots of familiar works, but nothing that felt right for the program. I didn't want anything overly dramatic. I wasn't looking for nationalistic music -- I've had my fill of patriotic music recently -- so I wasn't sure where I was headed.
After working through some of the rags and some small works by Ives, I recalled a couple of charming pieces from my early years of study: "To a Wild Rose" and "From Uncle Remus." Both short pieces by Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) are part of his larger work, Woodland Sketches, Op. 51. As I began to read the score, I expected to find simplistic ditties that would be of little interest; thankfully I lay aside my preconceived notions and discovered a wonderful example of American music.
Composed in 1896 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Woodland Sketches is MacDowell's most famous composition. Peterborough, which later become the MacDowell Colony, was the site of the composer's family farm and was known for its peacefully serene woodland setting. The 10 miniature pieces of Woodland Sketches seem to take their inspiration from the natural beauty of the area.
While an example of early American music, the piano suite shows more influence of the French and German schools than of the American composers who were active at the same time. With luscious harmonic structures, the simple melodies are lovingly supported, transporting the listener to the beauty of the forest. MacDowell was not a musical lightweight, however; technical demands are made upon the soloist in several of the pieces, most notably "Will o' the Wisp" and "In Autumn."
Perhaps the closing paragraph of the Schirmer edition's introduction to the work provides the best synopsis of Woodland Sketches' place in history.
A bygone era, gracious and sensitive, has been captured and retained in a series of poetic miniatures, and its piquant perfection of feeling is the result of its clearly defined circumspection. MacDowell employs a limited harmonic range and a simple melodic line, but his originality and quiet virility has given us not a precious bouquet pressed in an album, but a suite of musical water colors, delectable and tensile, a work not of spurious sentimentality but of genuine sentiment. (Woodland Sketches, Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 1805)