Great Composers - Amy Beach
Weekend Special

Great Composers - Amy Beach

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Born in 1867, American pianist and composer, Amy Beach was singing in harmony with her mother when she was 2 while she was rocked to sleep; she had written her first waltzes by 4; and by the age of 7, she was playing Beethoven sonatas along with her own compositions. In her career, she was particularly known for her ‘Piano Concerto’ and ‘Gaelic Symphony,’ the first symphony by an American woman composer.

At the age of 16, Beach gave her first public recital at Boston Music Hall. Several more successful recitals followed, and at 18 she played the ‘Chopin Piano Concerto in F Minor’ with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mass in E flat -

At 25, Beach had success with her ‘Mass in E-flat,’ and her later ‘Piano Concerto,’-- one modern-day critic called it ‘a colourful, dashing work.’ In fact, this successful premiere defied stereotypes. Critics went overboard showering praises such as, ‘deeper resources of the science of music’ that were ‘difficult to associate with a woman’s hand;’ or, ‘considerable ability in her orchestration’ was ‘somewhat of a surprise to the majority of the audience.’

When she was 27 her 'Gaelic Symphony,’ the first symphony by an American woman, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Earlier between the ages of 24 to 26, her important compositions included ‘Eilende Wolken’ and ‘Festival Jubilate.’ At 32, she came up with ‘Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor.’

Ironically, Beach lived during an era where women despite being talented were required to stay at home, and her own mother was reluctant to let her be a touring pianist. Beach’s biographer, Adrienne Fried Block, in her book, Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, writes: ‘Careers for women outside the home were hardly the accepted practice. Upper-class women gifted in music were turned from any thought of such a life plan because of the stigma attached to those who appeared as performers on the public stage.’

Gaelic Symphony in E Minor (excerpt)-

Despite society’s gender biases, Beach called her work ‘pioneer work,’ and said ‘music is the superlative expression of life experience, and woman by the very nature of her position is denied many of the experiences that colour the life of man.’

Astonishingly, she still emerged as the preeminent woman composer in the US, with more than 150 numbered works, nearly all of which were published; and also included choral works, church music, chamber works, cantatas, and songs to words of Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Robert Browning.

When she was 43, her husband died, after which she spent four years in Europe--here Beach was widely acclaimed both as a performer and a composer--garnering accolades for recitals in Germany; and for symphony and concerto, performed in Leipzig and Berlin.

Dreaming, op. 15 no. 3 -

At 47, she returned to the United States where she concertized in the winters, and composed in the summers. At the age of 54, Beach became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she composed most of her later works.

To further the cause of American women composers, Beach assumed many leadership positions, with institutions such as the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference. At 58, she became a founding member and first president of the Society of American Women Composers. Her later honours included two retrospective concerts in 1942, on Beach's 75th birthday. She died in 1944.

Undoubtedly, as the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale musical works, Beach was the most frequently performed composer of her generation, becoming famous in both the United States and Europe. Notwithstanding all the challenges, Beach has remained a presence in musical history, mainly because of her success in her lifetime and scholarly efforts to promote her work, unlike dozens of forgotten women composers.

Siddharth Kumar holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London, and conducts weekend Classical Piano classes. Siddharth is Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year MNC stint, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music.