Amy Beach

1867 1944

Amy Beach

Composer

Biography

Amy Beach was an American composer and pianist around the turn of the 19th century. She was one the leading female composers of her time, and the first to achieve success with large-scale works. Her connection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra allowed for her music to become well-known both nationally and internationally.

Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867 as an only child to a distinguished family. Already from a very young age, Beach showed a passion and talent for music. By the age of one, she was able to sing about 40 songs accurately and within the next year she could improvise a second voice to harmonize with her mother’s singing. At the tender age of three, Beach had taught herself to read and at the age of four she had mentally composed her first pieces for piano, which she later performed. Her talents also included the ability to play all the music she heard by ear; this even extended to four-part harmonies.

At the age of six, Beach’s mother taught her piano; together they worked towards her first public recital, which occurred one year later, on which she played works by Handel, Beethoven, Chopin and her own compositions.

In 1875, the family moved to Boston where they were advised that Beach had the talent to study in a European Conservatory. However, local teachers were chosen in order to keep the family together. She studied piano first with Ernst Perabo and later with Carl Baermann. Her development was followed by a group of men including Louis C. Elson, Percy Goetschius, H.W. Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Mason, and Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. Henry Beach was a physician and lecturer at Harvard University in addition to being an amateur singer. He and Amy married in 1885.

Beach’s success as a performer began with her debut in Boston in 1883; there she played the music of Chopin and Moscheles. In 1885, she had her debut performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Wilhem Gericke. Her performance career was then put on hold due to the wishes of her husband, who preferred that she focus on composition. Her only performances during this period were annual recitals, in which she donated the profits to charity.

Beach studied composition for only one year under the teacher Junius W. Hill, from whom she learned harmony and counterpoint. She then followed a course of independent study in 1884 after consulting with Gericke. Over the next ten years she studied the works of great composers and taught herself composition, fugue and orchestration. She also studied and translated the treatises of Hector Berlioz and François-Auguste Gevaert.

From this period until 1910, she composed many works, which were almost always performed. Beach’s style belonged to that of the Second New England School. Her first published work was a setting of a Longello poem,The Rainy Day (1880). Her Mass in E flat major Op. 5 (1890) is one of her most impressive works from this period along with the Symphony Op. 32Gaelic (1897), the Violin Sonata Op. 34 (1896), the Piano Concerto Op. 45 (1899), theVariations on Balkan Themes Op. 60 (1904) and the Piano Quintet Op. 67 (1907). Between 1885 and 1910 her works were published exclusively by Arthur P. Schmidt. Recordings were also produced, most notably a recording of her songs by Emma Eames. Renowned ensembles such as the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, the Kneisel Quartet, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered the works of this period. The songs often appeared on recitals by singers Emma Eames and Marcella Sembrich.

The Symphony Op. 32 is named the Gaelic Symphony as it draws on native music that represents her Anglo-American heritage. The symphony was prompted by Antonín Dvořák’s suggestion that American composers create a work with native influences.  

Her acceptance in society can be seen through her various work with large organizations and well-respected ensembles. Works were written for the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, and the International Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Other works were written for the San Francisco Chamber Music Society and the Symphony Society of New York.

Tragedy struck with the death of her husband and then her mother, in 1910 and 1911 respectively. Taking the opportunity to perform again, Beach travelled to Europe in late 1911, were she composed, performed and promoted her works. She found particular success in Germany, where her works were performed in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Berlin with favourable reviews. It was there that she was described as having “a musical nature tinged with genius.”

The outbreak of World War I forced her return to the US, where she continued to perform regularly. She settled again in New Hampshire in 1916 and toured during the winters and composed and practiced during the summers.

In 1921, Beach became at fellow at the MacDowell Colony. There, she composed most of her later works, most notably the String Quartet Op. 89 (1929),From Grandmother’s GardenOp.97 (1922), and the chamber opera Calido Op. 149 (1932).

Beach also became involved with St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York as the virtual composer-in-residence. She used her status as an influential female composer to help many young musicians; Beach led the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference in addition to co-founding the Society of American Women Composers, where she was also president.

In 1940, Beach retired due to deteriorating health caused by heart disease. She died in 1944.

Beach’s music always associates keys with colours and moods, allowing for the modulations to be very expressive. Further, her use of song is always evident, and sometimes she even uses the melody of a song in her instrumental works. Beach always treats the relationship between music and text very delicately; her array of harmonic color is also fascinating. With her earlier compositions, an early romantic influence can be noted with her use of modal degrees and mixed modes; influences from Brahms can be heard during this period.

Beach’s later works leave her rich harmonies behind and employ more impressionistic techniques, such as in the twoHermit Thrush pieces for piano, Op. 92 (1921). She later moves away from tonality, beginning withFrom Grandmother’s Garden.

Much of her music disappeared into obscurity after her death but many works have re-entered the repertoire since the 1990s.

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