Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Concert pianist, composer
Amy Marcy Cheney, born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867, was one of America’s most famous woman composers and concert pianists.
Amy’s parents, particularly her mother, Clara Cheney, considerably influenced Amy’s musical growth and early career trajectory. Clara, an amateur pianist and singer, was Amy’s earliest exposure to music, and for Amy, it was love at first sight. Amy longed to play the piano even when “scarcely more than a baby,” as she put it. Even though Clara did not begin informally teaching her daughter until age six, it was apparent almost from birth that Amy was a highly intelligent musical prodigy.
It was only when the family moved to Boston in 1875 that Amy began formal music lessons. Several of the leading Boston pianists that Amy met with recommended that she attend a German conservatory, as this was considered the most advantageous course for someone of Amy’s talent. But Amy’s parents did not approve of Amy having a career, much less training abroad. Their thinking fits in with the prevailing attitudes of the time: it was unusual for a woman to have a career outside the home at all, and for upper-class women like Amy, life as a stage performer was especially stigmatized. Thus, Amy studied locally.
In October 1883, at age 16, Amy was permitted to make her debut as a pianist, performing a public recital in the Boston Music Hall. Two years and several concerts later, Amy played for the first time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
Just 9 months after her BSO performance, Amy married Henry H. A. Beach (1843-1910). Henry, 24 years her senior, was a well-known surgeon and Harvard lecturer, and an amateur musician. With Amy’s marriage came a shift in direction. Henry wished Amy to live in accordance with her new social status as his wife, and Amy agreed to his requests that she never teach piano, that she donate any concert proceeds to charity, and – most importantly – that she limit her public performance.
For the next 25 years, Amy focused heavily on composition, which Henry supported. Since she had only a year of formal training, the rest of composition and theory were diligently self-taught. After reading all the instructional texts she could find, some of which required her to translate first, she analyzed the real world, absorbing scores and concerts. In an interview for a 1918 issue of Musical America, she recounted, “I copied and memorized whole scores of symphonies and overtures . . . until I absolutely knew just how they were ‘made.’ It was like a medical student’s dissection.”
Amy’s first major success and recognition as a composer came at age 25, when her Mass in E-flat Major debuted, performed by the Boston Symphony and the Handel and Haydn Society. It was the first time these organizations had performed a woman’s work. Later that year, Amy began receiving commissions and composing several other important pieces, like her concert aria, Eliende Wolken, and her 1891 piece Festival Jubilate. At age 27, she composed her Gaelic Symphony, which today remains one of her most famous works. It was the first symphony ever written by an American woman.
In 1911, a year after Henry’s death, Amy finally traveled abroad to Europe. There, she established herself once again as not only a composer, but also an acclaimed performer. Upon returning to the U.S in 1914, she settled into a balance: performing in the winter and composing in the summer.
In 1921, at age 54, Amy became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She was also connected to the Music Teachers National Assembly, as well as the Music Educators National Conference. Even at 25, Amy had been defending women’s competency as composers and performers and their right to recognition, and this continued later on in her life, as she assumed more leadership positions. Notably, she helped to found the Society of American Women Composers and became its first president. She died on December 27, 1944, in New York City.
Amy Beach was, and arguably still is, the most famous American woman composer. She pioneered in her craft despite the societal and familial constraints she encountered, and she contributed close to 150 published works to the musical cannon. In doing so, she demonstrated that women could have a central role in music – not as the muses and support systems of great men, as music critic George Upton reductively claimed, but as creative agents. This legacy, like her melodies, still reverberates.
Notable musical works:
Amy Beach. Eilende Wolken, Segler Der Luefte, Op. 18, Friedrich Schiller, 1892. Amy Beach. Festival Jubilate, Op. 17, Arthur P. Schmidt, Boston, 1892. Amy Beach. Mass in E-flat Major, Op. 5, 1890. Amy Beach. Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45, Arthur P. Schmidt, Boston, 1900. Amy Beach. Symphony in E minor, Op. 32: Gaelic, Arthur P. Schmidt, Boston, 1897.
Modern performance links:
Gaelic Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iklcodWfLk Mass in E-flat Major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-DlOM03n68 Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKYBhHK5Zh4
Writings and interviews:
“Believes Women Composers Will Rise to Greater Heights in World Democracy.” Musical America, 21 Apr. 1917, pp. 3, https://www.musicalamerica.com/pages/index.cfm?pagename=4-21-1917_p3&historical. Accessed 23 Aug. 2023.
“Bird Songs.” The Designer (May 1911): 7. “Common Sense in Pianoforte Touch and Technic,” The Etude, 34 (1916), 701–702. “Emotion Versus Intellect in Music,” Studies in Musical Education, History, and Aesthetics, 26 (1932), 17–19. “How Music is Made,” Keyboard, 4 (1942), 11, 38. “The ‘How’ of Creative Composition,” The Etude, 61 (1943), 151, 206, 208–209. Kinscella, Hazel Gertrude. “Play No Piece in Public When First Learned, Says Mrs. Beach.” Musical America, 7 Sept. 1918, pp. 9-10, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=qUc0AQAAMAAJ&pg=GBS.RA2-PA2&output=text. Accessed 23 Aug. 2023. “The Mission of the Present Day Composer,” Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon, 36/Feb (1942), 71–72. “Music After Marriage and Motherhood.” Etude (Undated). “Music’s Ten Commandments as given for Young Composers,” Los Angeles Examiner (28 June 1915). “The Outlook for the Young American Composer,” The Etude, 33 (1915), 13–14. “A Plea for Mercy,” Studies in Musical Education, History, and Aesthetics, 30 (1936), 163–165. “To the Girl who Wants to Compose,” The Etude, 35 (1918), 695. “The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of a Vision,” Studies in Musical Education, History, and Aesthetics, 27 (1933), 45–48. “Why I Chose my Profession: the Autobiography of a Woman Composer." Mother’s Magazine, 11/Feb (1914), 7–8. “Work out your own Salvation,” The Etude, 36 (1918), 11–12. “The World Cries out for Harmony,” The Etude, 67 (1944), 11.
Key references“Amy Beach (1867-1944).” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200153246/. “Amy Marcy Beach.” Britannica, 8 Sept. 1999, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Amy-Marcy-Beach. Block, Adrienne Fried. Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. Oxford University Press, 1998.