Edward Alexander MacDowell was an American composer and pianist, born in New York City. After studying in the United States, France, and Germany, he lived in Germany, becoming principal teacher of piano (1881-82) at the conservatory in Darmstadt. He returned to the U.S. in 1888 and was head of the music department of Columbia University from 1896 to 1904. MacDowell was one of the founding members of the American Academy in Rome, which to this day hosts American artists working in various fields.
In his compositions, MacDowell drew on 19th-century European musical styles, publishing first under the pseudonym of "Edgar Thorne" and later on using his given name. In 1896, MacDowell bought a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to rest and work in tranquility. There he said, he was "able to triple his creative activity." He hoped that by expanding the facilities, his farm might become a workplace for other artists. Although he died in 1908, in 1906 a fund had already been started in his honor by many prominent people of this time, among them Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, Victor Herbert, Henry Van Dyke, and J. Pierpont Morgan. In 1907, the MacDowell Colony was founded in Peterborough, thanks in great part to the tireless efforts of MacDowell's wife, Marian. It was designed as a retreat for artists of all kinds to work and thrive. The colony, still active today, has hosted such illustrious artists as Aaron Copland, Thornton Wilder and Leonard Bernstein.
MacDowell's death was a mysterious one. There are a variety of contradictory stories surrounding his last years. His contemporaries seem to suggest that he suffered a complete mental breakdown, eventually lapsing into catatonia. Insomnia is mentioned in most accounts, and his disputes with Columbia University are cited as a precipitating factor. His death is most often attributed to a vague and ill-defined "brain malady."