The best known woman composer of her time period and the first in the United States, Amy Beach (1867-1944) did not just create small pieces, but large orchestral works, and other complex compositions were part of her repertoire. She was the first American woman to write a symphony, and this was especially important because she received all her training in the United States.
Born Amy Marcy Cheney on September 5, 1867, in Henniker, New Hampshire, Beach was the only child of Charles Abbor Cheney and Clara Imogene (Marcy) Cheney. Her father was a mathematician and businessman who worked in paper manufacturing business that his father owned, who later had his own paper importing business. Her mother was a musician, a singer, and pianist.
Beach exhibited talent from an early age. She began singing tunes on pitch and with accuracy when she was a year old and she had also taught herself to read by the time she was three. The Cheney family moved to the Boston, Massachusetts, area in 1871, and it was at this time that Beach began composing her own melodies, mainly waltzes.
Began Piano Lessons
When Beach was six years old, she started taking formal piano lessons with her mother as her first teacher. Within a year, Beach was playing Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin; she gave her first recital by the time she was seven. Beach went on to have a number of good teachers as a young piano student. They included Carl Baermann (who was a student of Franz Liszt) and Ernst Perabo. Beach's innate sense of harmony and form helped her to achieve in her studies. Although her parents were advised that she would benefit from studying at a European conservatory—rather than in the United States—they chose to keep her home.
As with her musical training, Beach's academic education was also home-centered. Her mother taught her at home for six years. She then attended a private school run by W. L. Whittemore. Beach particularly enjoyed natural science and languages like French and German. While she was encouraged academically, it was within the limits of what was expected of young women in this time period.
Though Beach became known as a composer, she only took one class in music theory. When she was 15 years old, she took a harmony course taught by Junius Welch Hill. Also in this time period, she wrote her first published piece, a song to the poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Rainy Day."
Gave First Recitals
In October 1883, Beach gave her first significant public recital at the Boston Music Hall. For the event, she played Ignaz Moschelese's G Minor Concerto with the orchestra and as a soloist. She also performed Chopin's Rondo in E-flat. Between 1883 and 1885, Beach gave several more recitals in Boston.
One of Beach's last public recitals was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; she played Chopin's F Minor Concerto. In addition to her recitals, she appeared as a soloist with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For all her public appearances, Beach generally received many positive reviews.
Married Dr. Beach
On December 2, 1885, Beach was married to Dr. Henry Beach, who was 24 years her elder and a widower. Dr. Beach was a surgeon and professor at Harvard. He had followed her career from the time she was a child in part because he was also a musician, albeit on an amateur level.
After the marriage, Beach did not perform in public except for charity functions. Any time she performed, her fees were donated to charity. She did this at the request of her husband, who wanted her to be a wife and not a concert pianist. Upon her marriage, Beach was known publicly as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.
Focused on Composing
Dr. Beach did not want his wife to perform, but he did encourage her musical career. It was at his suggestion that she began composing. He did not encourage her to formally study the subject of composition believing that it might inhibit her originality. It was because of these restrictions that Beach became a virtually self-taught composer.
To begin her training, Beach studied music theory, counterpoint, musical form, and instrumentation on her own. She studied Bach's fugues by writing out her version of one of his works then comparing it to the original. Beach taught herself orchestration by writing notations of themes she heard at concerts, looking at the original score, and then putting the versions side by side.
Beach's first works were poems that she liked, set to her original music. While she would continue to do these kinds of pieces throughout her career, Beach would do much larger and more complex pieces including major orchestral works, as well as choral works, chamber works, church music, and cantatas.
First Major Work Performed
In 1892, after three years of labor, Beach's first major work was performed, Mass in E-flat major, numbered Opus 5. It was for chorus, vocal quartet, soloists, orchestra, and organ. The mass was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This marked the first time a composition written by a woman was performed by these groups. It was received positively.
That same year, Beach had her second work performed, an aria entitled Eilende Wolken, for contralto and orchestra, based on Friedrich von Schiller's Mary Stuart. Beach was asked to write this for Mrs. Carl Alves, who had been the alto soloist for the premiere of Mass in E-flat major. The first performance of Eilende Wolken was given by the Symphony Society of New York. Again, this was the first work arranged by a woman to be performed by this group.
Women remained the focus of Beach's next major work. She was commissioned to write a piece for the dedication for the Women's Building at the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Festival Jubilate (Opus 17) was written for chorus and orchestra and premiered in 1893.
Wrote First Symphony
In 1896, Beach wrote the Gaelic Symphony (also known as the Symphony in E-minor), which was the first symphony ever written by an American woman and the first symphony written by a woman and performed by an American orchestra. It was based on Gaelic themes. After its premiere at the Boston Symphony, it was performed throughout the United States. An article by David Wright in the New York Times quoted Boston composer George Whitefield Chadwick as writing that the symphony was: "full of fine things, melodically, harmonically, orchestrally, and mighty well built besides."
Beach wrote a number of other significant works in the late 1890s and first decade of the 1900s. In 1897, the Sonata in A-minor for violin and piano premiered. Beach herself played in the first performance with Franz Kneisel. At the 1900 premier of the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor (opus 454), Beach also performed, this time with the Boston Symphony. Beach received worldwide fame with her 1899 composition to the Robert Browning poem "The Year's at the Spring" (opus 44, number 1). Another frequently performed work was her Quintet for Pianoforte and Strings (opus 67), an instrumental piece.
While Beach was becoming an established and respected composer, she was also concerned with struggling musicians. Before her husband's death, she had events in her home every Wednesday in which she encouraged and introduced young musicians to the elite of Boston's society: social, musical, and artistic.
Death of Husband Changed Career
After Dr. Beach's death in 1910, Beach spent a few years in Europe, from 1911 to 1914. There, she did much performing and composing, both to acclaim. Beach's goal in travelling to Europe was to become an established solo performer as well as composer. She found much praise, especially in Germany. In Leipzig and Berlin, her Gaelic Symphony was performed to much commendation.
When World War I broke out, Beach was forced to return to the United States in 1914. The year after she returned, she moved to New York City, which remained her home base for the rest of her life. After her return, she toured as a pianist and continued composing.
Beach's years played out with her touring in the winter and practicing and composing in the summer. She spent her summers at her cottage in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, until 1921, when she began spending her summers as a fellow in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Many of her compositions in this time period were played at New York's St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where she was essentially the composer in residence.
Beach still composed other types of works, however. In 1916, she wrote a work commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco. This was called Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet (opus 80). In 1932, she wrote her first opera, Cabildo, a chamber opera in one act; Nan Bagby Stephens wrote the opera's libretto, and it premiered in February 1945 in Athens, Georgia. In 1938, she wrote Piano Trio (Opus 150), which was a arrangement for piano, violin, and piano.
All but three of Beach's numbered works were published—an amazing accomplishment for a composer of American origin. She composed approximately 300 total works, including 128 songs for poems. Many of her songs for poems were popular, especially the three by Browning which were set to music, "Ecstasy," "Ah, Love, but a Day," and "The Year's at the Spring." Stylistically, she was influenced by romanticism, especially early in her career, and such French composers as Brahms and Debussy. Beach was also among the first to be influenced by the idea of creating an American-style of music and using folk music as source material, including ideas from Native Americans, African Americans, and Alaskan Inuits.
During her lifetime, Beach received much acclaim in the United States as the country's foremost woman composer. However, some critics thought that she was too sentimental. She was also criticized for her reliance on chromatics. Others believed she had great technical skills and was very lyrical, she was also praised for her use of altered chords and enharmonic modulations.
Beach died of a heart ailment in New York City on December 27, 1944. She was a very generous person, even in death. In her will, she donated the royalties from her work to the MacDowell Colony. Although interest in the composer faded after her death, there was a revival of interest in her work in the late 1990s as feminists realized how innovative she was. As Michael Anthony in the Star Tribune wrote, "Late in her long, productive life as a pianist and composer, Amy Beach, who died in 1944, said that being a woman hadn't held her back as a musician."
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Star Tribune, August 27, 2000. □