This week’s composer is Amy Beach, née Cheney. She was a leading American composer in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and wrote some incredible music.
Amy Cheney was born in New Hampshire in 1867 to an upper-class New England family. From an early age it was clear she was a musical prodigy – she could supposedly sing 40 songs by the age of 1 and was composing her own piano pieces by the age of four. Her mother, an amateur singer, encouraged her in her musical education. When she was 7 years old, she gave her first piano concerts, including her own works. After the family moved to Boston when she was 8, her parents were told she was good enough to study at a European conservatory. Perhaps if she had been born a man, she would have been sent to Europe, as many other American composers of the time were. However, she was a young woman and it was deemed inappropriate for her to travel. Her education was continued, but with private teachers. She continued to excel as a pianist, having her concert hall debut in Boston when she was only 16, and debuting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra two years later. Her career appeared to have taken off, as she had received many positive reviews from many of her performances.
Unfortunately, Amy wasn’t allowed to continue her career as a performer. As a young woman of the upper class, she was expected to marry early, and well. As such, she was married to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a doctor 24 years her senior, and well known in the Boston upper class circles. He declared that no wife of his would *gasp* work for money, and so she was limited to performing for charity only once or twice per year. Although she had always considered herself a pianist first and foremost, she changed her focus towards composition. She wasn’t able to study at a traditional conservatory, only having had one year of study with a teacher. After that, as her husband wasn’t comfortable with her studying with a man, she taught herself composition by reading books and studying the works of other composers.
Despite all of the obstacles in her path, Amy went on to become a leading composer of her day – and a prolific one. In 1896, she became the first American woman to have a symphony published (the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony). It received wide-spread praise after its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1910, Amy’s husband, and then her mother, died. She decided to finally travel to Europe, where she spent the next years performing her works. She performed in Italy and Germany, where she also attended several performances of her symphony. European critics were impressed with her music, calling her a “leading American composer”. She had to return the United States in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI but was able to continue her performance tour all over the country. She eventually settled at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, a haven for composers and artists. She continued composing, eventually writing nearly 300 works, half of which were art songs.
Why am I talking about Amy Beach so early in my blog? There are many other fantastic women composers to choose from who unlike Beach received little to no recognition in their lifetime. I think she is important because not only did she continue to pursue music in spite of the roadblocks in her path (her lack of musical education and her husband’s restrictions of her musical activities) she eventually became a strong and vocal proponent of women learning composition. Although her husband stopped her from teaching piano, she wrote many articles, including “To the girl who wants to compose”. In addition, she was president and co-founder (along with Ruth Crawford Seeger, and 17 others) of the Society of American Women Composers, as well as president of several other national music education organizations. In addition, she actively worked to have her music performed, sending off new pieces to performers as soon as they were completed.
Aside from the fact that I absolutely love her music (especially her songs – they are not only great to listen to but so much fun to sing!), I believe that her support of other young women composers is incredibly important. Even though she was quite popular in her own time, her popularity diminished as soon as she was no longer promoting herself. I had not heard of her until I started my journey into learning more about women composers. It’s estimated that about 1/3 of her works have not yet been recorded, although recently there have been several groups promoting her music. There are no recent or widely available commercial recording of her featured song today, “Ye banks and braes”.
Beach was very interested in folk music, and many of her songs and larger works are based around that theme. One of my absolute favorites is her reworking of the Scottish folk song “Ye Banks and Braes o’ bonnie doon”, by Robert Burns. Unlike many who set folk tunes (like Britten, etc.), she didn’t just write a new accompaniment to the traditional tune – she wrote an entirely new piece. I hope you all enjoy this recording of it, made live by myself and David Wishart during our first ever Livestream Mini-Concert. (Yes, we’re going a little stir-crazy in Quarantine – who isn’t?).
Looking for more information about Amy Beach? Check out the Amy Beach Foundation (www.amybeach.org). I also found information from the Oxford Music Online, as well as an article from ClassicFM and Wikipedia. Emma Kirby also recorded many of her songs, which are available on Spotify.