Happy birthday, Amy Beach!
Who’s Amy Beach, you ask? Sadly, too many people ask that question, despite her being one of America’s foremost woman composers. As today is the 150th anniversary of her birth, I wanted to introduce you to her.
I do have to admit, that while I knew of Amy Beach, I had not heard much of her music. This post gives me a chance to really sit down and listen to some of her work. (I won’t get through her entire catalog right away; she was quite prolific and composed over 300 published pieces!)
Born in 1867 in New Hampshire, Beach was a music prodigy. She was memorizing a large catalog of songs at one, playing hymns and composing by four, performing pieces by the likes of Chopin on piano at seven. She made her public performance debut at age sixteen in Boston, as well as getting compositions published that same year. Two years later, she performed a Chopin piano concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Here are some of Beach’s earlier works, composed between 1887 and 1891.
At this point, Beach’s story has a familiar aspect to it, especially for female artists. Her family discouraged any sort of true career in music, and her new husband (Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach) wanted her to limit performing in public. Although he encouraged her to pursue composition instead, that encouragement still came with strings attached. Her husband did not allow her to take any lessons or classes that would have furthered her studies.
But Beach was determined. While she’d previously had one year of formal training in harmony and counterpoint, she largely taught herself. She studied and analyzed the music of great composers before her. She read books on composition. She gave herself an education.
Her education paid off. In 1892, the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston premiered her Mass in E-Flat Major.
Then, in 1896, her “Gaelic” Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
While her music was accepted and praised, there was often a shadow of “… for a woman” involved; in one instance, a critic praised her by basically saying she didn’t sound like a woman (“… difficult to associate with a woman’s hand”).
A recent New York Times article goes more in-depth on Beach’s life and attitudes about women in music. It is a worthwhile read, and served as part of the impetus for my own post.
In 1910, Dr. Beach died, leaving Amy a widow at age 43. With no one to tell her “no,” she traveled to Europe to resume performing and present her own works. After a successful tour, she returned to Boston in 1914. She later divided her time between New York City, Cape Cod, and the MacDowell Colony.
She continued to compose a wide variety of music before her death in 1944, such as:
Piano music (solo and duet):
And so much more (like I said, she was prolific!) I hope you take some time to explore her work. I know I’m ready to hear more!
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