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10 minutes reading time (1960 words)

Amy Beach: Celebrating 150 years

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Many years ago, while reading an issue of the old music magazine, The Etude, I found an article written by Mrs. H. H. A. Beach: "Ten Commandments for Composers." I had no idea who this mystery composer was, so I began my research to find information about her life and music. During my travels, I stopped at antique stores looking for editions of her music or copies of The Etude. In a small Minnesota town I found more than fifty—including one with her picture on the cover. Over the years I have found many musical trails leading to Beach territory. 

Prior to the performances of Amy Cheney Beach's compositions, it was presumed that women were not serious composers. George Upton's 1880 book Woman in Music merely highlights the influence of women composers on male composers' musical productivity—such as Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. Upton stated, "It does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator."

On March 23, 1982, Amy Beach's Opera, Cabildo, was performed for the Music Teachers National Association conference. Dr. Lindsey Merrill, had written his doctoral dissertation on Amy Beach, and found the opera during his research at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Beach had spent many summers there and composed the opera in June of 1932. It was very exciting to experience my first hearing of Amy Beach's opera that night. 

Amy's parents were Clara Imogene (Marcy) and Charles Abbott Cheney. They were descendants of some of the earliest colonial New England families. Her childhood home was in Henniker, New Hampshire, where Amy was born on September 5, 1867. Her mother realized she was no ordinary child when at eighteen months Amy harmonized with the lullabies Clara sang to her. 

Clara was startled when Amy would ask her to play the "pink" music. She thought her daughter wanted the music with the pink cover, but, no, Amy heard the music in colors and cried until the right song was played. Pink to her was the key of E-flat, the key of G was her red music, blue was A-flat, while yellow was the key of E, and white was the key of C. Her favorite color was purple, D-flat. 

Amy played many tunes she heard by ear and composed three of her own pieces when she was four years old. Finally her mother began giving her Amy Beach in 1908. Amy gave her first public concert at age seven, playing a Beethoven Sonata, Op. 49, a Chopin waltz, Handel's "Harmonious Blacksmith," and her own waltz as an encore. 


The family moved to Boston when Amy was eight and enrolled her in a private school. She studied with Ernst Perabo and later with Carl Baermann. Amy studied harmony with Junius W. Hill in the winter of 1881-1882, which was the only formal instruction in music theory she ever received.

When Amy was eighteen years old, she married Dr. H. H. A. Beach, a member of the Harvard medical faculty and a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. They met when Dr. Beach treated Amy for a sore finger. They married on December 2, 1885, in Boston's Trinity Church. The minister who performed the ceremony was Phillip Brooks, also known as the lyricist of "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

After marrying Dr. Beach, Amy studied constantly, teaching herself counterpoint, composition, and orchestration. She studied treatises on theory and harmony, owning just about every book on the subject. When necessary, she translated texts from French or German for her study and spent most of her time practicing and composing. Dr. Beach encouraged her composing, but made her promise that she wouldn't teach or give concerts except for charity events.

Amy's first important work was the Mass in E-Flat Major, performed by the Handel-Haydn Society, the first work by a woman composer ever performed by the Society. In the same year, she had the distinction of being the first woman composer to have her name on the program of the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1898, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played her Gaelic Symphony, critics called it, "a notable event in the history of woman's accomplishments."

Dr. Beach died in 1910; they had been married for twenty-five years. Amy sailed to Europe to rest, and then began concertizing in all the large cities. She performed her concerto with many orchestras and stayed overseas for more than three years. When Amy arrived back home in America, she secured an agent to arrange concerts for her. She began touring for most of each year and composing in the summer months.

During the years of my own research, I have met three women who actually knew Amy Beach. The first was Lillian Bantz, an artist who had lived in New England. She had since moved to Florida, and called me one day to tell me her story. Amy and Lillian were both members of the National League of American Pen Women, and Amy took Lillian to lunch at New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. Amy wondered if she could commission Lillian to do a painting of her summer home, to which Lillian agreed. Amy used this drawing on her Christmas cards, and I was fortunate to find a copy of the Christmas card at the Library of Congress. Beach paid for the Cape Cod summer home with the royalties from her famous vocal solo, "Ecstasy."

After giving a concert one day in New Hampshire, I met another woman who had met Amy Beach and heard her perform. An elderly woman came up to me and said that when she was seven years old she met Beach. Emma Wheeler explained that on one occasion her father drove Mrs. Beach to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, and she gave Emma the beautiful necklace she was wearing—silver with amethyst stones. She also recalled that when they arrived another time at the MacDowell Colony, Amy Beach pointed to the branch of a tree in front of her cabin where a bird had been singing. Later, Amy used that bird song to compose a piano solo, "The Hermit Thrush at Morn." The 1924 issue of The Etude had a picture of a Beach Music Club with twenty-four children in the picture. Emma Wheeler was one of the children pictured and identified all the others for me. Emma was there when Amy Beach performed for their club and remarked that Beach played beautifully and her fingers seemed to fly over the keyboard.

The third woman I met was Mrs. Selma Quick, who did calligraphy for Amy. Selma wrote out all the parts and scores neatly before Amy sent them to publishers. Selma lived near Chicago and had many letters of correspon- dence from Amy Beach that she shared with me, plus an original vocal solo that has never been published. Clavier Companion 47 March/April 2017 Amy Beach

Of the more than seventy composers honored on the Hatch Shell in Boston, Amy Beach is the only woman with that distinction. The granite stone with Beach's name engraved on it was unveiled on July 6, 2000. The Boston Pops Orchestra performed Beach's "Bal Masque" that evening in a spectacular concert. I attended this concert along with Adrienne Block, who was the author of the great biography, Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian.

Beach's many achievements include a special violin piece, Romance, Op. 23, which was composed and dedicated to the famous violin virtuoso, Maud Powell. It was premiered by Beach and Powell on July 6, 1893, at the Women's Musical Congress, held in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition. In 1900, Amy composed a Concerto in C-Sharp Minor for piano and orchestra and dedicated it to the great Venezuelan concert pianist, Teresa Carreño. The following are some interesting comments and advice to pianists and composers that were published in Musical America on September 7, 1918. Beach was interviewed in her home by Hazel Kinscella.


On favorite composers

"I consider Debussy the great modern poet of the piano— among the French writers—at least. He has written as Chopin did. Among the Russian writers . . . I think a great deal of Rachmaninoff and play his exquisite Serenades, Op. 15, and the Prelude in G Minor, which is really a story march . . . I consider nothing so precious as the works of Grieg and Edward MacDowell, for especially in smaller works both of these writers were absolutely perfect."


On practicing

"In the morning I begin with the good old-fashioned five-finger exercises. I do not tire my ears and nerves with these, however, but use a silent keyboard. ...I use them to 'limber up.' "I follow up with a big daily draught of Bach, at the piano, as refreshing to me as a drink of cold water. I practice from the Well-Tempered Clavier or the English Suites every day of my life. The rest of my practice time I spend on the program just then uppermost. "Yes, I firmly believe in technique for its own sake, for without entire mechanical control, it is impossible to 'tell the story.' A student should work for utter simplicity, clear melody playing and use of the pressure touch, and for wrist and finger dexterity."


On learning to compose

"Yes, it is true that I taught myself composition, and I think very few people would be willing to work so hard. It may be that it kept for me my individuality—at any rate, I enjoyed it immensely. I had one year's instruction in harmony and all the rest (fugue, counterpoint, and orchestration) I taught myself, studying through all the textbooks. I memorized fugues and similar works till I could write them out from memory, writing each voice. Then I copied and memorized whole scores of symphonies in the same way, until I absolutely knew just how they were 'made.' It was like a medical student's dissection. I began to know instrumentation on paper, then I went to concerts, thoroughly studying the symphony to be heard, before I went, and while the orchestra played it, I heard the instruments, learning the distinctive quality of each, until it was like the voice of an old friend."

Amy found this quote of Plato's to be the best in expressing the power of music: "Music is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just, and beautiful." The quote of Amy's that I find to be most relevant in expressing the need for music education in America today is this: "The monuments of a nation mark the progress of its civilization, but its intelligence and education are qualified by its music."

The musical world should continue to celebrate our great composers and keep their music alive. I remember celebrating Bach's 300th birthday in 1985 with a special recital and the Mozart celebrations a few years ago. Now let us join in to celebrate the 150th birthday of Amy Beach in 2017. When you plan your recitals and concerts add a chamber work, vocal solo, choral anthem, or piano solo composed by Beach. Ask your organizations to program her opera, piano concerto, or Gaelic Symphony. As a private teacher or college professor, assign a selection by our great American composer. Let's celebrate and educate, keeping the legacy and great music of Amy Beach alive.

"Let us then realize the magnitude of our responsibility in accepting the education of our young people, in the perfecting of their judgment, and in ripening their powers of instruction for the unknown genius and talent of the future." —Amy Beach.

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1 Upton, G. (1880). Woman in music. Boston, MA: Rand, Avery, & Co., p. 28..

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Winds of Change: March/April 2017
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