History Hunt: Amy Beach

This week, we’re crossing the Atlantic Ocean to meet a composer who was working around the same time as Dame Ethel Smyth–but whose luck was much better.

Amy Beach was born Amy Marcy Cheney on September 5, 1867. Like many of the people we’ve met through the History Hunt series, her genius for music appeared early–very early. When she was only one year old, she had memorised forty songs and had learned not only to sing in tune, but to improvise sung music with her mother!

When she was three, she taught herself to read, and when she was four, she’d composed her first song, “Mama’s Waltz.” What was especially incredible about “Mama’s Waltz” (as well as two more pieces she wrote at the same time) is that all three were for the piano…but they were composed while she was visiting her grandparents, who didn’t own a piano. Upon Beach’s return from her visit, her mother was skeptical that her daughter had written anything at all. Beach told her that she’d heard the piano music in her head and went to play her compositions on the family piano to prove it!

Her mother, Clara Cheney, was a skilled pianist and singer in her own right, and she started formally teaching piano lessons to Beach when she was six. Beach gave her first recital when she was seven, and by the time she was eight, it was already clear that she was going to need lessons from professionals.

Unfortunately, while Europe was considered the best place to learn to play Western Classical music at that time, Beach’s parents couldn’t afford to send her. Instead, she learned as much as she could by going to a private music school in Boston, where she and her family had recently moved.

When she was fifteen, she published her first of over three hundred compositions, The Rainy Day. Later that year, just after she had turned sixteen, she gave her first professional performance at the Boston Music Hall. According to The Kapralova Society Journal, “The Boston correspondent of the New York Tribune reported that ‘she played with all the intelligence of a master.'” It was the first of a series of very successful concerts she gave until 1885.

It was during this period, in the first part of the 1880s, that Beach began to run into the sexism that Dame Ethel Smyth spent her whole life fighting against. While the majority of male composers would have been taught how to write music as soon as they showed a degree of talent, Beach was more or less left to figure it out on her own. She was lucky enough to study for a year with a composition teacher, Junius W. Hill, but that was the sum of her lessons.

Many people would have given up at this point, but not Beach. She wrote out compositions by famous composers from memory, then checked what she had written against a copy of the music. She went to concerts, listened intently, and then wrote down as much as she could remember from each part and once again checked what she had written. When she found untranslated essays on composition written in French, she sat down and translated them herself so she could learn from them!

As for her performances, while many reviewers praised her genius without feeling the need to say she played well “for a woman,” there were still those who clearly believed that she was some sort of an exception. Even after she went on hiatus from performing publicly, this kind of backhanded compliment continued to show up when people discussed her compositions.

When Beach married in 1885, when she was eighteen, her husband asked her to stop performing professionally, except for charity, and that only rarely. Even though he was a singer and must have understood how wonderful it is to share music with others, he wanted Beach to stay at home to run their household. It was a request that wouldn’t have been seen as extraordinary at that time, even if nowadays we know that he was being sexist and unfair.

However, unusually, Beach’s husband was actually supportive of her composing. He was very proud of her genius and used his position as a doctor and a lecturer at the famous Harvard University to promote her music. Along with Beach’s mother, he also helped her figure out what was working in her compositions and what wasn’t.

Also in 1885, she had a stroke of luck that Smyth would have been envious of: she met a publisher named Arthur P. Schmidt, who was determined to show that American women composers were writing just as brilliant of music as American men. They struck up a partnership that lasted for the rest of Beach’s life, and overall, Schmidt published more than two hundred of Beach’s compositions.

As Beach became known as a composer, she started receiving the same sort of sexist reviews as Dame Ethel Smyth did: if she wrote bold, powerful music, she was thought “unfeminine” (Gates) and unattractive. If she wrote quiet, delicate music, she was dismissed as being feminine and thus, according to the ideas of the day, unimportant.

However, unlike Smyth, when Beach grew in popularity, the reviewers stopped criticising the personality of the woman writing the music and learned to appreciate her compositions on their own merits. It was an extremely fortunate position shared by few women of her day.

Beach achieved several firsts before she was even thirty: her first large-scale composition, Mass in E-flat, became the first work by a woman by the Boston Symphony and the Handel and Haydn society; also that year, another of her works achieved a similar first with the Symphony Society of New York. She also wrote the very first symphony written by an American woman, her Gaelic Symphony. Its music was based on Irish Gaelic folk songs that Beach had heard and admired. Using traditional melodies in art music was a popular trend at that time, and Beach also went on to arrange music by Alaskan Inuit and First Nations composers, as well as African-American, Scottish, and southern European composers.

The Balkans

Specifically, Beach’s southern European music drew from the traditions of the Balkans.

After the death of her husband and mother within seven months, Beach took a long break from music. A year after her husband’s death, in 1911, she left for Europe to continue her recovery, but in 1912, she began not only composing but performing publicly once more. She became hugely popular in Germany, and through her incredible music gifts, began to make people realise how wrong their prejudice against women was.

But in 1914, World War I broke out, and Beach needed to return home to America. Though she had to leave her successful career in Germany behind, for the rest of her life she remained a popular composer and artist in America and worked to give other American women the same musical opportunities she had.

While Beach was forgotten for decades after her death, determined History Hunters in recent years have begun to bring her back into the well-deserved spotlight. Like Hildegard of Bingen, Amy Beach is becoming one of our success stories–and thank goodness!

Below is one of Beach’s piano compositions, “Hermit Thrush At Eve, Op. 92, No. 1.” There’s a good selection of her music available on Youtube, including her Gaelic Symphony, so don’t forget to take a listen!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Mrs. H. H. A. Beach: American Symphonist by Eugene Gates in The Kapralova Society Journal
Amy Beach at Naxos.com
Amy Marcy Beach at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Amy Beach at the Library of Congress
Amy Beach: Quartet For Strings (In One Movement), Op. 89 at Music of the United States of America
Amy Beach at Wikipedia.org
Songs of Amy Beach at AllMusic (image source)

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