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Composer Bio

Amy Beach

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.

Marriage

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.

Traveling The World

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.

Amy’s Impact

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?).

From the livestreamed Mini-Concert on 14 April 2020

Looking for more information about Amy Beach? Check out the Amy Beach Foundation. I also found information from the Oxford Music Online, as well as an article from ClassicFM and Wikipedia. Emma Kirby has recorded many of her songs, which are available on Spotify.

Looking to perform some of her music? Many of her works are available on IMSLP. Furore Verlag and Hildegard Publishing also have selected works available for purchase.

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Composer Bio

Clara Schumann

Composer, Performer, Mother and Wife

Clara Schumann née Wieck was a complicated woman. She was a composer, a world renowned concert pianist, a mother of 8, and a wife to the troubled composer Robert Schumann. She was born in Leipzig in 1819 to an especially musical family, and was trained in music, languages, composing, and piano from a very early age by her father. Perhaps because of her father’s incredibly strict and even cruel ways, she debuted at the Leipzig Gewandhaus when she was just 11 years old. She continued to practice and perform throughout Germany and abroad (she performed in Paris at the ripe age of 12) under the stern eye of her father. Her father even wrote many of her diary entries! When her younger half-brother died before a performance, her father forced her to travel to Dresden the next day to perform. She became an expert at performing through illness, violence, pain, and despair. There is no question that her father’s intense and authoritarian teaching style paved the way for her to balance motherhood, performing, and taking care of Robert.

In 1828, was she was merely 8 years old, Robert Schumann entered her life as a live-in student of her father’s. By the time she was 13, she was in love with him, and he with her. He simultaneously was a proponent of her composing, and her harshest critic. He never truly believed that she was a “full artistic genius”, but he nonetheless needed her as a musical support. He never believed that she could succeed as an composer on her own, and that she must dedicate herself, both emotionally and musically to him. She followed this idea completely – even going so far as to legally challenge her father for the right to marry Robert in 1840.

After her marriage, it became difficult for her to find the time to compose – even to practice! Robert’s composition was the most important thing to him; Clara was of course responsible for raising their eight children, keeping house and cooking. He was not happy when she went on extended tours to keep the family in the black, but it was unavoidable. He believed that “the creative artist had higher status than the performer” (Sounds and Sweet airs, p 225). Even despite this, she continued to compose, and to perform. She was always a supporter of Robert and his music, even to the detriment of her own piano playing and composing. After his death, she dedicated herself to the interpretation of others’ music and to preserving his legacy, only composing one piece herself.

Clara found it difficult even at the best of times to compose, so perhaps it is no surprise that she did not publish much music. However, as she grew older and the societal view of women’s role in music in Germany became more close-minded, she too came to believe that women should not create music, writing that “a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it”. In my opinion, this belief that became pervasive in the 19th century was an incredibly destructive one; we have lost so much music because it was never allowed to become an idea, let alone be published. We should celebrate what little music exists today from these women – and I believe Clara Schumann’s music is worth celebrating. I hope you do too! Some of my favorite music of hers is from her 6 Lieder, Op. 13 – here is my recording of Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic), excerpted from our first livestream mini-concert. You can find the whole concert over in the Livestream section of the blog.

Liebeszauber

Op. 13, Clara Schumann

Lisa Newill-Smith, soprano

David Wishart, pianist

Sources I used for this blog post include Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs, and the article on Clara Schumann in Oxford Music Online. Much of her sheet music is available on IMSLP – please go and sing and play as much of it as you can!

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introduction

What’s the big deal?

Hi! I’m Lisa Newill-Smith, and I’m a classical soprano living in Germany. In the classical music world we perform a lot of music in the “canon” – works by Mozart, Bach, Strauss, Wagner, Stravinsky, etc. I love singing this music! So much of it is absolutely incredible and a joy to sing. But. (There’s always a but isn’t there?) All of this music was written by men.

I didn’t really consciously think about that until I started singing some of Libby Larsen’s song cycle “Try me Good King”. It’s an amazing cycle – go listen to it! Singing that made me think that maybe there were other composers out there I hadn’t heard of yet. So, I started actively trying to find music written by women. I started with Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Amy Beach. And then I read Anna Beer’s Sweet Sounds and Airs. It’s incredible informative and so well written. And it made me want to learn about even more composers. Eventually, while researching for a women-only programme of Baroque and Classical repertoire, I came across Women Composers: Music Through the Ages edited by Sylvia Glickman and Martha Furmann Schleifer. Guys, seriously this collection of books is amazing. They’ve compiled so many composers, from the 1500s through 1800s, and they even have vocal scores! The downside is that these books are only really available in libraries – and only one library here in Berlin had them.

So. Why am I writing this blog if all these resources exist?

Well. My idea for this blog is to introduce these composers to people who have no idea they exist. I’ll write a brief bio, and I’ll let you know where you can find more information if you’re interested! I will tell you where you can find the sheet music (and possibly supply some decent copies as well!) And lastly, I’m going to record selections from each composer. Two of the hardest things that I’ve found while doing my research is one: finding music, and two: finding recordings if I do manage to miraculously find the sheet music.

I will also be starting a resource page with recommended books, websites and institutes with more information.

Thanks for reading and I hope you come back for my first blog post – which will be about German composer Clara Schumann!

-Lisa