Amy Beach

1867 1944

Amy Beach

Composer

Biography

Amy Beach was an American composer and pianist. She was one of the leading composers of her time, and the first American female composer to achieve success with large-scale works. Her connection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra allowed for her music to become well known both in the USA and internationally.

Born in New Hampshire, USA in 1867 Amy Beach demonstrated early signs of being a child prodigy and had composed her first pieces for the piano by the age of four. Her first public recital, aged seven, included works by Handel, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as her own compositions. In 1875, her family moved to Boston where they were advised to send her to study in Europe. However, local teachers were chosen in order to keep the family together.

Amy’s success as a performer began with her debut in Boston in 1883. In 1885, aged 18, she gave her first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the same year, she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a surgeon 24 years her senior. He demanded that she limit her public performances to two per year, donating the profits to charity. She now devoted herself instead to composition. Having previously spent a year studying composition formally, she now studied independently as her husband also disapproved of her working with a tutor. Over the next ten years, she read every book she could find on the subject and taught herself about orchestration and fugue. She also translated the treatises of Hector Berlioz and François-Auguste Gevaert into English and studied them for herself. From this period until 1910, Beach composed many works, most of which were publicly performed. Her first published work was a setting of a Longello poem, ‘The Rainy Day’ (1880). Between 1885 and 1910 her works were published exclusively by Arthur P. Schmidt, and recordings were also produced. Renowned ensembles such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Kneisel Quartet, and the Boston Handel and Haydn Society premiered her works during this period. Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony (Op. 32) was the first symphony by an American woman to be published and performed, and is so named as it drew on folk themes of Ireland and Scotland. The symphony was prompted by Antonín Dvořák’s suggestion that American composers create works with native influences. Looking to her own ancestry, Beach incorporated English folk melodies along with the Celtic ones. She would later explore Native-American, Balkan, and African-American folk themes in her songs. The ‘Gaelic’ symphony was first performed in 1896, and its reception secured Beach’s membership of the Second New England School of composers, also known as the ‘Boston Six’.

After the death of her husband and mother in 1910, Beach began to perform again. She travelled to Europe in 1911, to perform, compose, and promote her works. She found particular success in Germany, where her works were performed in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Berlin with favourable reviews; She was described by a critic in Hamburg as having “a musical nature touched with genius.” The outbreak of World War I forced her return to the USA, where she continued to perform regularly. She settled in New Hampshire in 1916 and began a schedule of winter tours, composing and practising during the summer months. In 1921, Beach became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. There, she composed most of her later works, most notably the String Quartet Op. 89 (1929). Some of her later works leave her rich harmonies behind and employ more impressionistic techniques, such as in the two ‘Hermit Thrush’ pieces for piano, Op. 92 (1921). In ‘From Grandmother’s Garden’ Op.97 (1922), she begins to move away from tonality.

In her later years, Amy Beach led the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference in addition to co-founding the Society of American Women Composers, of which she was also president. She retired in 1940 due to deteriorating health caused by heart disease and died in 1944. Much of her music disappeared into obscurity after her death, some of it having been previously published under her husband’s name. Since the 1990s, many of her works have re-entered the repertoire. In 2000, the Boston Pops Orchestra paid tribute to Amy Beach by adding her name to the granite wall of the Hatch Shell, an outdoor concert venue in Boston, the first woman to join the 86 composers names already engraved on the structure.