September 2017, saw the 150th birthday of prolific woman composer, Amy Beach, yet her music is rarely placed in modern concert repertoire. Although she is perhaps one of the most well-remembered women composers, there is still a long way to go to make sure her wonderful works are fully integrated into modern concert halls. This article aims to highlight her fruitful life, and also look into her work for violin and piano: Romance.
Amy Beach was born in New Hampshire, 1867, and it was said that from a very young age she showed the signs of being a child prodigy. It has been documented that by age 1, Amy could sing forty songs. By age 2, she could improvise melodies over pre-existing music. By age 3, she was competent at reading music. From age 4, Amy began composing simple works, such as waltzes. It was Amy’s mother who was the driving force behind her musical education, as she herself was a well-known pianist and singer at the time. At age 6, Amy began taking formal piano lessons with her mother, which she excelled at. Thus, by age 7, she was giving public recitals, playing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and of course, herself. In 1875, Amy and her family moved to Boston, and she began taking piano lessons with Carl Baermann (a student of Franz Liszt). At age 14, Amy received her only composition lesson, which was with Junius W. Hill. Therefore, the rest of her career she was a wholly self-taught composer.
A lot of articles about Amy Beach focus on the sexism she encountered throughout her life, and the ways in which she overcame them. It is important to understand this, as it was such a large part of her life, and therefore it affected the way she was able to work at times. Amy married Dr. Henry Aubrey Beach, who was a Boston-based surgeon, who was 24 years her senior. Henry did not agree with Amy giving so many recitals, so he restricted her to just two a year, with all proceeds from these recitals going to charity. Due to this, Amy began to focus more on composition. Henry forbade Amy to learn composition formally, so she instead bought an abundance of books on composition, orchestration and arranging so she could learn her own art. Even through this, Amy is still recognised as a powerful force when it comes to composition. Her Mass in Eb Major was received with particular positivity when it was premiered in 1892.
Amy Beach: Mass in Eb Major (Kyrie)
Amy Beach was part of a group called the Boston Six, which was comprised of John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker and Edward MacDowell. Being a part of this collective aided Amy to get her work published, and by 1896 she premiered her first symphony - Gaelic Symphony. This was a large milestone as Amy became the first American woman to composer and then further publish a symphony. Further to this, in 1900, Amy was the soloist for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor, and from here her composition career really took off.
1910 was a tragic year for Amy. She lost both her husband and mother in the same year, and to deal with the grief, she stopped composing for a short period of time. After taking a year off to grieve, Amy began composing and giving recitals once more. She went travelling around Europe with American soprano, Marcia Craft, and together they gave many recitals in major European cities. Throughout her travels, Amy was known to be the first American woman who was able ‘to composer music of a European quality of excellence.’
Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C sharp Major
Amy returned to America in 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. She became the primary carer of her terminally ill cousin, Ethel. Amy began offering coaching and feedback to young composers and musicians. In 1928, Amy received an honorary Master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire. During the last years of her life, Amy travelled to Europe once more, and gave some of her last public concerts. Upon her return to America in 1940, Amy retired from composing due to ill health, which overcame her in 1944.
Romance for violin and piano was premiered in 1893, and published within the same year. Technical complexity is at the heart of many of Amy Beach’s compositions, with this one being no exception. The relationship between the piano and violin is very special in this particular work, due to the amount of musical communication between the two instruments. Amy’s originality is crystallized in Romance, with it being a real homage to technical chamber music from the Romantic era. Romance is dedicated to Maud Powell, a close personal friend of Amy, and also a virtuoso violinist. The premiere of Romance, was played by Maud and Amy, and it is noted that it was received incredibly well by the audience.
As one of the leading representatives of the late-nineteenth-century Romantic style, Amy keeps the feeling of this in Romance. Her use of dramatic dynamics, extremities in range for both instruments, and the way they both fuse together to create one voice is incredibly beautiful. The charm of Romance is perhaps one of its greatest assets, with it really tugging at your heartstrings in some places. The dainty, yet powerful melodic lines sing through the complex piano accompaniment, and show off the versatility of the violin in just six short minutes. The ending of this work acts as a reprise of the beginning of the work, and slowly begins to wind down, before ending on the tonic, with a beautiful arpeggiated chord from the piano.
Amy Beach: Romance for violin and piano
Unlike a wealth of forgotten women composers, Amy Beach has retained a presence in musical history. However, there is still a long way to go before her works are properly integrated into modern concert halls. Her music is daring, powerful, emotional, complex and full of character, and there is no good reason why she shouldn’t be at the forefront of many concerts. Just before she passed away at age 77, Amy was concerned that her legacy would be shadowed by gender politics, rather than it being about her musical efforts. She said ‘My work has always been judged from the beginning by work as such, not according to sex. The question has rarely ever been raised.” Even after all the oppression she received in her lifetime, she still downplayed it to ensure her art was heard in the future. Well, Amy, we can hear your music, loud and clear - thank you for your contribution to classical music.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Dr Helen Thomas