Colonial Power: An exploration of America’s most prominent artist colonies

MacDowell is considered a composer’s colony (Yaddo is more for writers) largely because it was founded by one. In 1907, Edward MacDowell, then head of the music department at Columbia University, began to invite artists to stay summers at his property in Peterborough, New Hampshire—a purchase discovered and organized by his wife Marian. After Edward died, Marian ran the colony herself, weathering it through all sorts of trouble—a huge incapacitating storm and the great depression to name a few. It has been going strong for nigh on one hundred years now, the granddaddy of all artists’ communities. With 32 working studios, 10 of which have pianos (some named after composers like Irving Fine and MacDowell) it has housed composers like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, Louise Talma, Stefan Wolpe, Ulysses Kay, David Del Tredici, David Lang, and innumerable others.

MacDowell is pretty much the top of the line American colony—the facilities are excellent, the staff helpful, and the overall mood one of hard work followed by hard play. Studios are big and bright, and it is set up so you cannot see one studio from another, giving the illusion of total solitude. If you are lucky enough to attend, be sure and watch the movie Lady in the Wings—a touching 1950s cinematic telling of the story of Marian and Edward—and visit the gravesite, located just off the property.

In beautiful Saratoga Springs, New York, a few hours outside of the New York City, Yaddo stands on what was once a tavern and farm—the bar where, some legends have it, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a chunk of “The Raven.” In 1881 Spencer and Katarina Trask bought this property and began inviting people to come and work there—much the same way Edward and Marian did. Yaddo—a name suggested by the Trask’s daughter—is the name of the actual mansion.

When their children died in 1900, the Trasks incorporated the mansion, making it into a workspace available to “…authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts and besides and not less for the power and the will and the purpose to make these gifts useful to the world.” Since then, some 5,500 artists have been guests, virtually all the important American composers of the century: Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Harold Shapero, and hundreds of others. Five of their studios have pianos.

It would be difficult to place one of these colonies above the other in importance, prestige, impact, or beauty of place. The all-star guest lists have massive overlap—both are equally difficult to get into, and both cater to older and more established persons. But it can never hurt to apply. Both also prefer people to stay for a longer period, so wait until there is a gap in your schedule.

From Colonial Power
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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