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Amy Beach, a Pioneering American Composer, Turns 150

Listing the names of dozens of female composers, Beach added that “more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art than formerly.”

When her “Gaelic” Symphony was given its acclaimed premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra four years later, Beach became a national symbol of women’s creative power, and was known as the dean of American women composers. Yet Sept. 5, her 150th birthday, will not be widely celebrated with performances of that pioneering symphony. No major American orchestras have programmed her works this season. Indeed, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the last time the Boston Symphony performed one of her orchestral works in full.

That Beach was famous in her lifetime but ignored today suggests that, even if we live in a more enlightened age than Dvorak’s, prejudices still shape the symphonic repertory.


Beach in 1940, with members of a chamber group in Brooklyn.

Vang Studio

“Historical women composers have a much harder time getting people to take a chance and listen to them,” the musicologist Liane Curtis said in a recent interview. As the president of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, dedicated to supporting women in classical music, Ms. Curtis has helped organize several Beach commemorations for her anniversary season, including a coming academic conference at the University of New Hampshire as well as the website amybeach.org. Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is also issuing new versions of Beach’s scores, including the first edition of her career-making “Gaelic” Symphony since it was originally published in 1897.

In an ideal world, American orchestras would take up these new editions and embrace Beach’s work. But in the meantime, scholars have provided an illuminating examination of her life and significance. As the musicologist Adrienne Fried Block documented in her 1998 biography “Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian,” the composer was a remarkable prodigy. Born Amy Marcy Cheney and raised in an upper-class Boston family, by the time she was 2, Beach was singing in harmony with her mother as she was rocked to sleep; by 4, she had written her first waltzes; and by 7, she was playing Beethoven sonatas along with her own compositions.

Despite Beach’s early promise, her domineering mother at first refused to sanction a life as a touring pianist. “Careers for women outside the home were hardly the accepted practice,” Ms. Block writes of the era. “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.”

Beach was eventually allowed to make her public debut as a performer. But when her family consulted a prominent conductor about how to further her growth as a composer, he recommended self-study. While American composers of the time typically traveled to Europe for private instruction, women were perceived as intuitive musicians and not capable of intensive training. So Beach devoted herself to an exhaustive immersion in the orchestral repertoire, systematically examining scores and comparing them to performances she heard at the Boston Symphony.

“I copied and memorized whole scores of symphonies,” she once said in an interview. “It was like a medical student’s dissection.”

At 18, she married an eminent doctor, Henry H. A. Beach. Pressured to conform to expectations for an upper-class wife, she curtailed her public recitals. Henry Beach did not want her to take composition lessons, either — he feared, patronizingly, that it might change her creative voice — but he still pressed her to work.


Amy Beach with her husband, Henry H.A. Beach, in 1886.

“It was he more than any one else who encouraged my interest upon the field of musical composition in the larger forms,” she wrote of her husband. “It was pioneer work, at least for this country, for a woman to do.”

She began publishing elegant piano works and affecting songs, including a hit, “Ecstasy,” which eventually had over 1,000 performances. And she benefited from Henry’s professional connections, as his patients included leading arts patrons in Boston.

But making a career as a composer was an uphill battle. The prevailing American view on female composers at the time is articulated in the subheadings of the first section of the critic George Upton’s influential 1880 book, “Woman in Music”: “A general view of woman’s influence on music — love attachments and home life — the failure of woman in composition — some consideration of reasons why she has produced no enduring musical work.” Upton and others believed that women were too emotionally volatile for the “exact science” of composition; they could only serve as mothers and muses for great men.

“She will always be the recipient and interpreter,” Upton wrote, “but there is little hope she will be the creator.”

Beach herself worried that women’s limited opportunities might constrict their ability to flourish as creative figures. “Music is the superlative expression of life experience,” she said, “and woman by the very nature of her position is denied many of the experiences that color the life of man.”

Nevertheless, she persisted. The successful premiere of Beach’s first major work, an expansive Mass in E-flat, defied stereotypes. One critic praised her “deeper resources of the science of music” that were “difficult to associate with a woman’s hand”; another wrote that her “considerable ability in her orchestration” was “somewhat of a surprise to the majority of the audience.” She was quickly accepted as a member of a distinguished cohort of Boston composers, among them John Knowles Paine and George Whitefield Chadwick, both of whom wrote symphonies steeped in European idioms that are unfortunately overlooked today.


Beach in 1934.


Beach achieved her breakthrough with the premiere of the “Gaelic” Symphony in 1896. The work draws on Irish folk melodies, but its crisp energy and roiling climaxes are steeped in the style of Dvorak, whose “New World” Symphony had swiftly become a touchstone for American composers, and also that of Brahms and Saint-Saëns, whose scores she had studied.

Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”: I. Allegro con fuoco Video by Detroit Symphony Orchestra – Topic

The symphony was nearly unanimously praised, albeit in gendered terms. One critic wrote that it “has not the slightest trace of effeminacy, but is distinctly and thoroughly masculine in effect.” Chadwick welcomed her into the American symphonic school, tellingly, as “one of the boys.” Beach continued honing her orchestral voice in the stormily combative Piano Concerto, which Ms. Block’s biography treats as a sonic metaphor for the composer’s struggles for control in her private life.

She soon became an emblem for women’s rights. “When women were working on the suffrage movement,” Ms. Curtis said, “Beach was often pointed to as one of these symbols of women’s achievements, that women can work at the highest level in every field.” After Beach’s husband and mother died, she resumed her piano career and toured Europe, receiving accolades that further bolstered her reputation in the United States. She wrote a set of exquisitely Brahmsian variations for flute and quartet; impressionistic piano miniatures based on her transcriptions of birdsong; and a densely chromatic string quartet pointing toward modernist developments that, as an unabashed musical conservative, she otherwise never embraced.

Unlike dozens of forgotten women composers, Beach has remained a presence in musical history, mainly because of her success in her lifetime and scholarly efforts to promote her work. But her absence from the modern repertory demonstrates the pervasive, lingering influence of figures like Upton. Even as living female composers have become increasingly recognized in recent years — three of the last five Pulitzer Prizes in Music were awarded to women — the absence of older examples from the repertory can give the false impression that women simply didn’t compose before the late 20th century.

“People think the canon is a product of some really impartial meritocracy,” Ms. Curtis said. “Having read a lot of feminist theory, we know that all kinds of things are shaping our perceptions of what belongs in a canon.”

Just a few months before she died in 1944, at 77, Beach was asked to reflect on the status of women in music. “I have no special views at all about the success or non-success of women in any field,” she said. Perhaps concerned that her legacy might endure as political rather than musical, Beach downplayed the sexism that she had fought against throughout her career. “My work has always been judged from the beginning by work as such, not according to sex,” she insisted. “The question has rarely ever been raised.”

But the question was raised continually in Beach’s lifetime, and it remains unanswered today.

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