Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was one of the most celebrated American composers of the 19th century. He was also a poet, a talented visual artist, avid photographer, and dabbled in architecture. His compositions won the approval of music critics, both in Europe and the United States, and his contemporaries, including composers such as Franz Liszt and Joachim Raff. While MacDowell's early romantic works reflected his training in Germany, he was one of the first to incorporate native materials into his works and is credited in helping establish an American idiom. He was among the first seven Americans honored with membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1904.
He studied piano at the Paris Conservatoire and after two years moved on to Germany to study composition with Raff in 1878. In 1882 Raff introduced MacDowell to Liszt, who arranged for him to play his Modern Suite No. 1 at Zürich. In 1884 he married pianist Marian Nevins (1857–1956) his former pupil, and the two lived in Germany until 1887. After returning to the U.S., MacDowell played the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in D Minor, his most successful larger work, in New York in 1889. In part due to his growing reputation on both sides of The Atlantic, he was hired to establish a department of music at Columbia University in 1896. He aimed to help legitimize literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, and music as departments equal in importance to those of science and philosophy. But a change in direction in University administration led to a public airing of grievances and a debate over the role of fine arts in academia, and MacDowell resigned by 1904. Combined with a traffic accident shortly after, from which the composer never fully recovered, he sank into a deep depression.
The next summer, he and his wife retreated to their farm in Peterborough where MacDowell had always maintained he did his best work since his wife first bought the property in 1896. By the summer of 1905, however, Edward MacDowell's health had declined to the point where he could no longer compose. Instead, knowing he was gravely ill, MacDowell became obsessed with the fate of the property. It is said that he could only be consoled when Marian promised him she’d turn the property into an artists’ colony dedicated to his vision of bringing together artists working in the various disciplines. As a result, MacDowell accepted its first artists in 1907, the year before Edward died.