MacDowell was born in New York City to prosperous Scotch-Irish parents, and studied the piano from the age of eight. He progressed so rapidly that at the age of sixteen his mother removed him from school and took him to Paris for advanced study. Perhaps because of a misunderstanding about the age limit for entrance to the conservatory, at about this time his birth date was changed from 1860 to 1861.
After studying in France and Germany, he lived in Germany, becoming principal teacher of piano (1881-82) at the conservatory in Darmstadt. After this European sojourn, MacDowell and his wife - at 24 he had married one of his American students - left for Boston in 1888, where they were to remain for the eight years before he left for Columbia, where he was head of the music department of Columbia University from 1896 to 1904.
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.
His death was a mysterious one. There are a variety of contradictory stories surrounding his last years. His contemporaries seem to suggest that he suffereda 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".
With the aid of the accumulating funds, the Edward MacDowell Association was formed to administer the property as the MacDowell Colony, a haven for the undisturbed work of composers, writers, painters, and sculptors. Months before his death there were two colonists in residence. Since then residencies have been enjoyed by more than 4,500 individuals-an enduring legacy of a farsighted man.