Eugenia Zukerman & the Shanghai String Quartet
Music Should Be My Life's Work: Amy Beach (1867-1944)
"How inevitable it was that music should be my life's work. Both in composition
and piano playing, there seemed to be such a strong attraction … that no other
life than that of a musician could ever have been possible for me."
Born in 1867, at a time when middle-class women like herself had only just won the right to attend college and begun to take up jobs in the public sphere, it was not necessarily a foregone conclusion that a woman, no matter how talented, would be able to succeed in a sphere so dominated by men. But by the end of her life Amy Cheney Beach had, over the course of 70 creative years, composed more than 300 works and was honored as a leader in the American Romantic style.
The uniqueness of her work, however, does not stem solely from the fact that she was a woman. That she was to be a composer was evident even from a very young age. She had perfect pitch and at the age of one could sing more than 40 tunes. By the age of four she was composing little songs in her head and could play hymns by ear in perfect four-part harmony. And by the age of seven she had already begun to give public recitals, having been trained by her pianist mother in their home in Henniker, New Hampshire. Recognizing her talent, her parents arranged for her to begin private lessons in piano and composition after the family moved to Boston in 1875. Apart from a year of lessons in harmony and counterpoint, she taught herself orchestration and fugue, and by the age of 18 was appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and publishing her own first professional compositions.
It was at this time that she met the society doctor and amateur musician, Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, whom she married in 1885, and it was at his request that she gave up her concert appearancesat the time, performing in public was not altogether looked upon with favor as a respectable occupation for women. But he did encourage her composing career, and it was during her marriage (Henry died in 1910) that she made her reputation as a serious composer. Her major works of this periodworks such as her Grand Mass in E-flat (only her 5th publication, hailed as a masterpiece), the Gaelic Symphony (one of the first large-scale works by a woman), and her Piano Concertowere all performed by ensembles such as the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Symphony Society of New York. And she was only 26 when she was commissioned to compose a work for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Following her husband's death, she resumed her concert toursthis time performing her own compositions. Her tour of Germany was a great success, and critics raved about her compositions as well as her skills at the pianoone called her a "virtuoso pianist with a musical nature tinged with genius" and rated her one of America's foremost composers. After her return to the United States just before World War I, she settled in New York and thereafter spent her winters on tour and her summers composingmost often as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She thrived on this dual career, and once commented, "I have literally lived the life of two people, one a pianist, and the other a writer. When I do one kind of work, I shut the other up in a closed room and lock the door, unless I happen to be composing for the piano, in which case there is a connecting link. But in this kind of life one never grows stale. There is always a continual interest and freshness from the change back and forth."
Amy Beach's musical style was also unique for her timean eclectic voice that echoed Romantic composers such as Brahms and Wagner, layered with texture, complex harmonies, and colors. Although it was her large-scale works for orchestra which won her fame as a composer, she was a prolific composer of songs, which often drew on folk tunes and nature themes. At the MacDowell Colony she liked to sit outside her studio near the woods when she composed, and her affinity with the natural world is reflected in many of her songs which use tone painting to echo the sounds of the forest, such as in her songs "A Hermit Thrush at Eve," "A Peterborough Chipmunk," and "Young Birches."
Many of her songs, such as her setting of the Browning poem "The Year's at the Spring" and "Ah, Love, but a Day," were immensely popular in her day and favorites in the repertoire of leading singers. But although she was fêted during her lifetime as the foremost woman composer of her daythe first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale art musicher compositions lapsed into obscurity after she was no longer able to promote them herself from the concert platform. It is only in recent decades that her work once again appears on concert programs and is issued in new recordings, in part due to renewed interest both in women composers and Romantic music.
For further reading: Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).