Amy Beach

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Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (September 5, 1867 – December 27, 1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Most of her compositions and performances were under the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

Early years[edit]

Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire into a distinguished New York family. A child prodigy, she was able to sing forty songs accurately by age one; by age two she could improvise a counter-melody to any melody her mother sang; she taught herself to read at age four, and began composing simple waltzes at age five. Amy's mother, being a musician herself, encouraged her daughter with singing and playing the piano for her. Despite this, her family struggled to keep up with her musical interest and demands. Young Amy often commanded what music was to be played and how. She was often prone to fits and tantrums if the music did not meet her demands. In addition, her mother forbade Amy from playing the family piano despite the child's wish to play, believing that indulging her would damage parental authority.[1]:6 Eventually, she began formal piano lessons with her mother at age six, and a year later started giving public recitals, playing works by Handel, Beethoven, and Chopin, as well as her own pieces.

In 1875, the Cheney family moved to Chelsea, a suburb just across the Mystic River from Boston,[1]:7 where they were advised to enter her into a European conservatory. Her parents opted for local training, hiring Ernst Perabo and later Carl Baermann as piano teachers. At age fourteen, Amy received her only formal training in composition with Junius W. Hill, with whom she studied harmony and counterpoint for a year. Other than this year of training, Amy was self-taught as a composer; she often learned by studying much earlier works, such as Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. She got some useful advice later from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's conductor Wilhelm Gericke.


Amy Beach in 1908

Amy Cheney made her professional debut in Boston in a recital in 1883, playing Chopin's Rondo in E-flat, but a more notable concert was as piano soloist in Moscheles's piano concerto No. 3 in G minor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Her performance received large acclaim from both critics and other musical circles. Following her debut in Boston, the next two years of her career included performances in Chickering Hall, as well as starring in the last performance of the Boston Symphony's 1884–85 season.[2]

Following her marriage in 1885 to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach – a Boston surgeon 24 years older than she – she agreed to limit performances to two public recitals a year, with profits donated to charity. Following her husband's wishes, she devoted herself to composition. Her first major success was the Mass in E-flat major, which was performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, founded in 1815. The well-received performance of the Mass moved Beach into the rank of America's foremost composers. Not only did the Mass propel Beach's career as a composer, it also stands as an important part of the advancement of women's music, as it was the first piece composed by a woman that was performed by the Society, viewed by some as the most conservative music organization in the country.[3] She composed the Jubilate for the dedication of the Woman's Building at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Beach's Gaelic Symphony, composed in 1896, was another important milestone in music history, as it made her the first American woman to have a symphony performed anywhere,[4] and the fourth woman worldwide: among all omposers of symphonies, just three women were born earlier, Louise Farrenc, née Jeanne-Louise Dumont, 1804–1875, in France; Alice Mary Meadows White, née Alice Mary Smith, 1839–1884, in England, and Elfrida Andrée, 1841–1929, in Sweden.

In 1900 she was soloist in the premiere of her Piano Concerto wiith the Boston Symphony.[5]

After her husband died in 1910, Beach toured Europe for three years as a pianist, playing her own compositions. She was determined to establish a reputation there as both a performer and a composer. "The fine quality and traditional correctness of her music caused astonishment."[5] She returned to America in 1914, where she spent time at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. In 1915, she wrote Music’s Ten Commandments as Given for Young Composers, which expressed many of her self-teaching principles.[1]:57 Beach later moved to New York, where she became the virtual composer-in-residence at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, New York. She used her status as the top female American composer to further the careers of young musicians. While she agreed to not give private music lessons while married, Beach was able to work as a music educator during the early 20th century. She worked to coach and give feedback to various young composers, musicians, and students. Given her status and advocacy for music education, she was in high demand as a speaker and performer for various educational institutions and clubs, such as the University of New Hampshire, where she earned an honorary master's degree in 1928. She also worked to create various "Beach Clubs," which helped teach and educate children in music. She served as leader of various organizations focused on music education and women, including the Society of American Women Composers as its first president.[6] Heart disease led to Beach's retirement in 1940 and her death in New York City in 1944.


A member of the "Second New England School" or "Boston Group," she is the lone female considered alongside composers John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, George Whiting, and Horatio Parker.[7] Her writing is mainly in a Romantic idiom, often compared to that of Brahms or Rachmaninoff. In her later works she experimented, moving away from tonality, employing whole tone scales and more exotic harmonies and techniques.

Beach's compositions include the Mass in E-flat major (1892), the Gaelic Symphony (1896), a violin sonata, her Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, a piano quintet and a piano trio, several choral and chamber music compositions, piano music (including the Variations on Balkan Themes), approximately 150 songs, and the opera Cabildo (1932).

Her sacred choral works include a setting of the Te Deum first performed by the choir of men and boys at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun first performed at St. Bartholomew's in New York, and a dozen other pieces, which were extensively researched in the 1990s by Betty Buchanan, Musical Director of the Capitol Hill Choral Society in Washington, D.C.

She was most popular, however, for her songs. "The Year's At the Spring" from Three Browning Songs, Op. 44 is perhaps Beach's most well-known work. Despite the volume and popularity of the songs during her lifetime, no single-composer song collection of Beach's works exists. Select works may be purchased through Hildegard Publishing Company and Masters Music Publication, Inc.

In the early 1890s, Beach started to become interested in folk songs. She shared that interest with several of her colleagues, and this interest soon came to be the first nationalist movement in American music. Beach's contributions included about thirty songs inspired by folk music, including Scottish, Irish, Balkan, African-American, and Native American origins.[8]


Despite her fame and recognition during her lifetime, Beach was largely neglected until the late 20th century. Efforts to restore the history of Beach's works have been largely successful during the last few decades.[9]

In 1994, the Boston Women's Heritage Trail placed a bronze plaque at her Boston address, and in 1995, Beach's gravesite at Forest Hills Cemetery was dedicated.[10] In 1999, she was put into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2000, the Boston Pops paid tribute by adding her name as the first woman joining 86 other composers on the granite wall of Boston's famous Hatch Shell.[11]

Selected discography[edit]

  • Amy Beach, Piano Music, Vol. 1, The Early Works, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7317
  • Amy Beach, Piano Music, Vol. 2, The Turn of the Century, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7329
  • Amy Beach, Piano Concerto in C sharp minor with pianist Alan Feinberg and the Symphony in E minor ("Gaelic"). Performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn. Naxos 8559139
  • Amy Beach, Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor; Quartet for Strings; Pastorale for Wind Quintet; and Sketches (4) for Piano, Dreaming. Performed by the Ambache Chamber Ensemble. Chandos Records 10162
  • Amy Beach, Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 34 (1895) Performed by the Arcos Trio. Big Sky, White Pine Music WCD202, 2008.
  • Amy Beach, Songs. Sung by mezzo soprano Katherine Kelton and accompanied by pianist Catherine Bringerud. Naxos 8559191
  • Amy Beach, Grand Mass in E-flat major. Performed by Stow Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Albany Records, 1995.
  • Amy Beach, Canticle of the Sun, Op. 123; Invocation for the Violin, Op. 55; With Prayer and Supplicaton, Op. 8; Te Deum, from Service in A, Op. 63; Constant Christmas, Op. 95; On a Hill; Kyrie eleison, Op. 122; Sanctus, Op. 122; Agnus Dei, Op. 122; Spirit of Mercy, Op. 125; Evening Hymn, Op. 125; I Will Give Thanks, Op. 147; Peace I leave With You, Op. 8. Performed by Capitol Hill Choral Society. Albany Records, 1998.


  1. ^ a b c Fried Block, Adrienne (1998). Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195074084. 
  2. ^ Fried Block, Adrienne (1991). Women and Music: A History. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 167. 
  3. ^ Gates, Eugene (2010). "Mrs. H.H.A. Beach: American Symphonist" (PDF). The Kapralova Society Journal 8 (2): 3. 
  4. ^ Fried Block, Adrienne (1991). Women and Music: A History. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 169. 
  5. ^ a b Griiffiths, Paul, "Beach, Amy", in Oxford Companion to Music, Alison Latham, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 113
  6. ^ Robinson, Nicole Marie (2013). "To The Girl Who Wants To Compose": Amy Beach as a Music Educator (Thesis). pp. 24–28. 
  7. ^ Beatie, Rita. "A Forgotten Legacy: The Songs of the 'Boston Group'", NATS Journal 48 no. 1 (Sept–Oct 1991): 6–9, 37.
  8. ^ "Fried Block, Adrienne. Amy Beach's Music on Native American Themes", American Music, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1990), pp. 141–166. Published by University of Illinois Press. doi:10.2307/3051947
  9. ^ "I Hear America Singing: Amy Marcy Beach". PBS. 1997. 
  10. ^ Music Clubs Magazine, World Music News, Spring 1996, 20.
  11. ^ Meyer, Eve Rose. "Composer's Corner: Amy Beach Joins the Ranks of Honored Composers," International Alliance for Women in Music 5 nos. 2–3 (1999): 20.

Further reading[edit]

  • Amy Beach, The Sea-Fairies: Opus 59, edited by Andrew Thomas Kuster (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1999) ISBN 0-89579-435-7
  • Beach, Mrs. H. H. A. and Francis, of Assisi, Saint, The Canticle of the Sun Betty Buchanan (ed.), Matthew Arnold (tr.) (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 2006) Recent researches in American music, v. 57.
  • Block, Adrienne Fried: "Amy Beach", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1 October 2006), [1]
  • Block, Adrienne Fried, ed. (1994). Quartet for Strings (In One Movement), Opus 89. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 3. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
  • Brown, Jeanell Wise. "Amy Beach and Her Chamber Music: Biography, Documents, Style". Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  • Jenkins, Walter S. The Remarkable Mrs. Beach, American Composer: A Biographical Account Based on Her Diaries, Letters, Newspaper Clippings, and Personal Reminiscences, edited by John H. Baron (Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 1994).
  • Jezic, Diane Peacock. "Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found, Second Edition". New York: The Feminist Press, 1994.

External links[edit]