American pianist and composer Amy Beach (née Cheney) was born September 5th, 1867 in New Hampshire. From the very beginning of her life, she was different from other babies. Supposedly, by the age of one, she had memorized forty songs, and by two, she was able to harmonize the lullabies her mother sang to her to send her to sleep. When she would spend summers at her grandfather’s as a child, Beach composed waltzes. Astonishingly, she would compose pieces in her head because her grandfather didn’t own a piano. She would then return home to play them at the end of the summer.
Unfortunately, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not common for women to have a performing career or even to perform in public, apart from perhaps singing, flute and harp. Amy Cheney Beach was not sent to Europe to develop her studies, whereas a man with her talents would have done so in a heartbeat. Women were also forbidden from attending conservatoires for anything other than singing. However, this didn’t stop Beach from furthering her studies. She continued learning piano with local tutors and read up on composition and other musical techniques.
The results of her studies were fruitful. Beach moved on to playing Beethoven at seven years old, and at sixteen made her concert debut at Boston Music Hall. However, when she turned eighteen, Amy Cheney married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, who was around the same age as Amy’s mother. Once she became Amy Beach, she was no longer allowed to perform as often. Ironically, she had married in order to escape from her possessive mother, but it turned out that her husband was just as bad. He cut down her performances to about two concerts a year and demanded that all the money she made be donated to charity.
Considering Beach was unable to perform, she turned to composing. She became fairly well known, and is to this day, for her songs. In order to more easily have her pieces published, she used her husband’s name, H. H. A. Beach. When she was allowed to perform, she often debuted her own works. She used a lot of self-taught techniques in her compositions. She learned through the books she read, and also by studying the works of great composers to figure out what to do.
Amy Beach classified her work as ‘pioneer work’, and was the first American woman to write a symphony (the “Gaelic Symphony”). When she was twenty-five, her composition the Mass In E flat premiered in Boston. The two large genres of symphonic and big choral works were what women tended to steer clear from, mainly because they were deemed too ‘unfeminine’. But aside from the larger works, Amy Beach wrote hundreds of songs and often used motifs from those songs in a lot of her instrumental pieces. One of her more famous songs, The Year’s at the Spring op.44 no.1 was so popular that it paid for her house in New Hampshire. One of Beach’s most interesting pieces is her chromatic and innovative Prelude and Fugue in A minor. Beach engraved her own name into the music (A-B-E-A-C-H(b natural)) as if snatching back her own identity and retrieving control.
Her compositions were advancing and welcomed the change in composition styles (from Romantic to Modern). Although she did not delve into atonality, she did explore chromaticism and impressionism in pieces such as her Ballade op.6, Variations on Balkan Themes op.60, and Piano Quintet in F# Minor. Her works show an impressive mastery of composing skills, especially considering she never really studied composition (aside from personal research).
A defining characteristic of Beach’s work is long lines. Just when you think the melodic phrase is over, it catches you off-guard and continues. She also loved triplets and inverting melodies and playing them with the left hand. Her Ballade op.6 (click on this youtube link to hear the beautiful piece!) was written based on a poem (to which she wrote a chanson) “My love is like a red, red rose.”
Beach was never a mother. In 1924 when she was fifty-seven, Beach wrote Cradle Song of the Lonely Mother op.108, which is more explorative and impressionistic and uses very different musical language than her earlier works.
Beach founded and was the first president of the Society of Women American Composers wherein she advocated for and encouraged women in music and composition. When Amy Beach’s husband died in 1910, she quickly went to Europe to restart her performing career. She stayed on and continued teaching whilst there. She then returned to the United States in 1914 and spent the winters performing. Receiving the MacDowell Fellowship in the summer, Beach would live in the woods to write and draw. When she died, she left all her money to the MacDowell Fellowship.
Some of Amy Beach’s works were performed in mid-September at St Martin-in-the-Field. I think it is important to support female artists to bridge the gap between men and women in yet another industry overrun by men. Just like Clara Schumann, Amy Beach showed extreme talent and capabilities in piano playing and in composition. As Classic FM said, “Amy Beach was one of the greatest composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries – but because she was a woman you probably haven’t heard of her.”
Many talented women have been brushed aside, and quite often we fall back on the excuse that there just aren’t that many pieces and works written by women. But that isn’t true. I agree that not enough works are written by women, but it is a matter of giving women a voice and encouraging them to flourish instead of squashing their talents, like Beach’s husband did.
© Sophia Jin (9/22/21) – Special for FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/2008562295/ https://lccn.loc.gov/2008562295 P. 95 in Boston, MA periodical Our dumb animals, vol. 25, no. 8, January 1893. Public Domain File: Golden Gates- music by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. LCCN 2008562295.jpg Created: 1 January 1893–
Middle Photo: “American composer Amy Beach” by Northfield.org is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
Bottom Photo: “Piano Concerto Gaelic Symphony Amy Beach Naxos” by iClassicalCom is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/