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Amy Beach: First Lady of American Music

Amy Beach

Amy Beach

When asked to identify leading American female figures in the arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most culturally literate people could only produce a few names from what was still largely a man’s world: Edith Wharton for literature and Mary Cassatt for the visual arts among the select few. Amy Beach (1867-1944) belongs on this list for her many contributions to American music, and at the start of the 21st century she is finally getting the recognition that she richly deserves.

Born Amy Marcy Cheney to upper middle class parents in New Hampshire (her father, Charles Cheney, had forebears who were abolitionists and women’s suffragists), young Amy was a child prodigy, able to sing 40 different songs by age one. She wrote her first pieces for the piano at age four, before beginning formal study with her mother Clara, a talented pianist herself, at age six.

However progressive her family’s tendencies were, young women at the time were discouraged from pursuing a career in musical performance, as frequent public appearances were seen as unbefitting women of a certain social order (Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, encountered the same performance stigma in Europe, and turned her energies to music composition). Nevertheless, by age 16, Amy Cheney was giving piano concerts in Boston to rave reviews.

Two years earlier, at 14, Amy had received her only formal training in composition with Junius W. Hill in Boston for a year. Otherwise, she was a self-taught composer, finding inspiration through the study of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The teenaged Amy Cheney became a well-known performer in New England through her frequent appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, until her marriage at age 18 to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a Boston surgeon 24 years her senior (she would thereafter become known at performances and on her compositions as “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach”). She acceded to her new husband’s wishes, limiting her public performances, and devoting more of her time to composition - again developing the skill largely through self-study, as Dr. Beach did not want her studying composition with a teacher.

Mrs. Amy Beach’s compositional acumen was displayed in her well-received Mass in E-Flat Major of 1892, which broke through the binds of chauvinism and created a consensus among the male music critic corps that she was now among the first order of American composers, male or female. Over the next twenty years, as a married member of the privileged class, she became a patron of musical arts and entered her most productive period as a composer, publishing a piano concerto, her Gaelic Symphony, a number of piano sonatas, and a solo piano work titled Variations on Balkan Themes, which honored the uprisings against the Ottoman Empire taking place in the Balkans during the early 1900s.

After Dr. Beach’s sudden and unexpected death in 1910,and her mother’s death 7 months later, Amy left for Europe, hoping to recover there. She gradually returned to performing, embarking on a concert tour of Germany with Marcia Craft, an American soprano and a prima donna with the Royal Berlin Opera, and playing many of her original songs and other compositions. Sales of Beach’s music in Germany were so robust that her publisher, Arthur Schmidt, had trouble meeting demand.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beach returned to the United States, eventually settling with two other female relatives at a house in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Royalties from her music sales (particularly those in Europe) allowed her to be selective with performance engagements, and she became the mentor and teacher to a new generation of American musicians and composers that her late husband had discouraged her becoming.

I will give thanks (1939), based on Psalm 111, is one of Beach’s later compositions, a sacred song with soprano solo and organ accompaniment that reflects the conservatism of her later years. Although Beach had experimented with modernist musical idioms - during her tours of Europe she became well-acquainted with Debussy’s music - she became more devoutly religious later in life. Thus I will give thanks reflects the earlier influence of Brahms, and not Beach’s later contemporary Bartok.

Although by the late 1930s and early 1940s her music was seen as anachronistic and out of fashion, in earlier decades Amy Beach had been an influential performer, composer and educator, generous with her time, knowledge and financial resources. Amy Beach Societies had been formed throughout the U.S. to study and perform her music. But at the time of her death in December 1944, Beach’s reputation was insecure (some statements made in support of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the early 1930s had not helped).

A general rediscovery of women’s contributions to cultural history over the past four decades has revived Amy Beach’s legacy, highlighting her important contributions to American art music, exposing new audiences to her compositions, and inspiring a new generation of female musicians and composers who won’t have the same hurdles to face.