Composers Datebook®

MacDowell goes "modern"


These days, when "Modern Music" is on the program, a sizeable chunk of the concert hall audience might start nervously looking for the nearest exit—but that wasn't always the case.

On today's date in 1882, a 21-year old American composer and pianist named Edward MacDowell took the stage in Zurich, Switzerland, to perform his "Modern Suite" for piano at the 19th annual conference of the General Society of German Musicians, a showcase for new music whose programs were arranged by none other than Franz Liszt.

Liszt had met MacDowell earlier that year, and when MacDowell sent him the music for his "Modern Suite" for solo piano, Liszt asked the young composer to play it himself at the Society's conference in Zurich.

Now, in an era when piano virtuosos like Liszt always played from memory, MacDowell premiered his "Modern Suite" with his own manuscript score propped up in front of him at the piano. This struck contemporaries as rather odd, but MacDowell's explanation was (quote): "I had never realized that my compositions could be worth actual study or memorizing!"

The success of his First "Modern Suite" lead to the creation of a Second, and both were published a year later by the Leipzig firm of Breitkopf and Hærtel. These two suites were the first works of MacDowell to appear in print, and launched his career as one of the major American composers of the late 19th century.

Music Played in Today's Program

Edward MacDowell (1860 - 1908) First Modern Suite, Op. 10 James Barbagallo, piano Naxos 8.559011

On This Day


  • 1836 - Brazilian opera composer Antonio Carlo Gomes, in Campinas


  • 1937 - American composer George Gershwin, age 38, in Hollywood, following an operation on a cystic brain tumor


  • 1882 - MacDowell: "Modern Suite" No. 1 for Piano, in Zurich, with composer as soloist

  • 1921 - Gershwin: musical revue, "George White's Scandals of 1921," at the Liberty Theater in New York City

  • 1996 - James MacMillan: "The World's Ransoming" (English horn Concerto), at the Barbican in London, by soloist Christine Pendrill with the London Symphony, Kent Nagano conducting

  • 2003 - Peter Maxwell Davies: "Naxos Quartet" No. 2, at the Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham (UK), as part of the Cheltenham International Festival by the Maggini Quartet;


  • 1798 - In the nation's capital of Philadelphia, President John Adams signed an Act of Congress establishing the United States Marine Band (The original "32 drummers and fifers" assisted in recruiting and entertained residents)

  • 1885 - First concert of the Boston "Promenade" Orchestra (later dubbed the Boston "Pops") at the old Music Hall in Boston; Adolf Neuendorff conducts;

  • 1922 - Opening concert of the Hollywood Bowl, with German conductor Alfred Hertz at the podium

  • 1940 - Leonard Bernstein's first appearance as conductor of a professional orchestra, leading a performance of Wagner's Act I Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" with the Boston Pops at an open-air Esplanade Concert

  • 1998 - "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band, America's oldest professional musical organization, marks its 200th anniversary

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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