Amy Marcy Beach (September 5, 1867 – December 27, 1944), an extraordinary and well-known American pianist, was an equally proficient and prolific composer of various genres of classical music. Amy Beach performed and composed at a time when even American male composers were unfairly compared to their European counterparts, and generally went unappreciated by musical critics for their abilities. Thus, as a woman and an American, she had an even greater barrier to overcome. Despite the obstacles, her musical genius in composition and piano performance made her the first successful female American composer and the first female American composer of a symphony, the "Gaelic Symphony". Later in life she became one of America's most celebrated musical ambassadors. Many of her compositions and performances were under her married name, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.
She was born Amy Marcy Cheney in Henniker, New Hampshire. As a child prodigy, she was able to harmonize by the age of two, played the piano at the age of three, and composed her first song at the age of four. At a time when women were not supposed to be in the "limelight," she was still ably taught by her mother who gave Amy her early music lessons and built her confidence. The family soon moved to Boston and Amy continued her musical instructions in piano, theory and some composition with other instructors, although her knowledge of composition was largely self-taught. She made her professional debut in Boston in 1883 and shortly thereafter appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing the beloved F minor piano concerto by Frederic Chopin. Following her marriage in 1885 to Dr. Henry H.A. Beach, a well-known Boston surgeon, she largely stopped performing (at his request) and devoted herself instead to composition. After her husband died in 1910, she toured Europe the next year as a pianist to wide acclaim. She usually performed her own compositions, although she was very much at home with selections from the standard classical repertoire. She returned to America in 1914 and continued her concertizing, touring and composing. Amy spent time at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She died in New York City.
Amy Beach had a particular talent for perceiving sound with color and movement. Thus her many works for different genres and instrumentation take on scintillating lives of their own. Her symphonic composition is the popular Gaelic Symphony (1893), which took her two years to complete. Amy was very interested in the folk songs of Ireland, composing the symphony to be reminiscent of Irish fiddlers and bagpipe drones over folk songs that appear as key symphonic themes. This work has programmatic tendencies because Amy wanted to depict the "laments, romances, and dreams" of the Irish peoples. The work can be considered as a "national" piece due to its ethnic Irish-American folk song sources. It is scored for strings, two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, triangle, and tympani. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony in 1896.
Another popular work is the Mass in E flat Major, for solo quartet, organ, chorus, and orchestra. Other compositions include a piano concerto (1900), a quantity of choral music, chamber music, piano music, and the opera Cabildo (1932). She was most popular among vocalists. In her songs Amy was able to capture the nuances and moments in everyday life in musical episodes with well coordinated lyrics and verses. For example, her Three Shakespearean Songs, Op. 44 combine the verses with melodies, bringing episodes from The Tempest and A Midsummer's Night Dream clearly to life. Her songs for solo voice were like musical poems, capturing so many complex emotions in a simple and beautiful way. Some of the more popular titles include "Ah, Love, but a Day," and "The Year's at the Spring," but these are only a few examples of her prolific output in popular songs.
Amy Beach's musical philosophy drew upon folk songs, especially from the Irish, Scottish and English peoples, who immigrated to America. In 1893 Amy reiterated her philosophy in print. That same year, the composer, Antonin Dvorak visited America and was quoted by the Boston Herald advising American composers to seek out their "native" themes as he had done in his "New World Symphony". Dvorak had intended that those "native" themes for Americans should come from African songs and rhythms. Amy wrote the Boston Herald after reading Dvorak's interview and said, "We of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors." Although Amy Beach drew from the sources that she knew best, she felt that the indigenous music of folk peoples, no matter where they were from, truly energized the art music of America that soon evolved into a distinctive musical style in both classical and popular idioms.
Amy Beach became the youngest and only female member of the Boston School of American composers, who were greatly influenced by the German Romantic style of the day. This school was the first American school of art music. On July 9, 2000, at Boston's famous Hatch Shell, the Boston Pops paid tribute to Amy Beach. Her name was added to the granite wall on "The Shell,” and she joins 86 other composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Edward MacDowell and Ludwig von Beethoven. True to her role as a pioneer of women composers, she is the only woman composer on the granite wall—a full equal to the other 86 on "The Shell."
- Beach, Amy. The Sea-Fairies: Opus 59, edited by Andrew Thomas Kuster. Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1999. ISBN 0895794357
- Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0195137841
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