Female Composer Amy Cheney Beach Broke Musical Bounds

Today, on the anniversary of her death, we’re celebrating Amy Cheney Beach, a groundbreaking female composer. 

Born in America in 1867, Amy Cheney Beach was a composer at a time when it was not only rare, but actually unheard of to be successful in that field as a woman. In fact, Amy’s first symphony (her “Gaelic Symphony”) was the first symphony to be composed and published by an American woman. To describe Amy’s music style, FF2 Contributor Sophia Jin says, “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.”

To break such strong barriers in the music world, Amy had to be pretty incredible, and she was. It is said that by the age of one she could accurately sing forty different songs, by two she could harmonize with her mother’s bedtime lullabies, by three she could read music. By four, she was composing waltzes in her head when she was without a piano at her grandfather’s farm, returning home to play the songs in their entirety. She was also able to play music by ear, even four-part hymns. 

Not only was Amy a prodigy with the ability to transcend the social limitations of her gender, she was also unusual in that she did not receive training in Europe. She received lessons from composers Ernst Perabo and later Carl Baermann, but was really mostly self-taught. In fact, Amy was known to be one of the first American composers to be successful without European musical training. It’s as if Amy knew that, as one of the first women to pursue a career in composing, she needed to forego tradition and forge her own path. 

One of Amy’s most successful works was her Mass in E-flat major, which was performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydyn orchestra, which had never performed a piece composed by a woman in the 77 years since their foundation. Amy’s Mass in E-flat major was followed by her “Gaelic Symphony,” which changed the course of history for American music as mentioned above. In her tribute to Amy, FF2 Contributor Sophia Jin mentions another one of her prominent works: “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.”

As a woman, Amy forged the path for other female composers to make music, as an American, she upheld new traditions for musical training, and as a composer, she innovated a style that was uniquely her own. On the day of Amy’s death, it’s important to recognize the strong mark she made on the world and the lasting impact that she has had. 

© Julia Lasker (12/27/2022) FF2 Media


Read Sophia Jin’s tribute to Amy Cheney beach here.

Listen to Amy’s music here.


Featured photo: A book of sheet music perched on a piano. Credit to Pexels.

Bottom 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/

Tags: Amy Cheney Beach, Carl Baermann, composer, Ernst Perabo, female composers, Gaelic Symphony, Mass in E-flat major, piano

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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