Amy Beach – Remarkable Musician Rediscovered

Day 121 of Colourisation Project – September 5

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

In an era when women’s opportunities were restricted by a culture that saw them only as dutiful wives and mothers, the musical careers of women such as Nannerl Mozart and Fanny Mendelssohn were never allowed to flourish like those of their famous brothers. Any dreams Alma Schindler may have had of becoming a great composer were knocked out of her the day her husband, Gustav told her that there was only room for one composer in the Mahler family. As she laments in her diary: “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart,” one can only wonder how many other women of the time experienced the same?

One woman who partially defied all the 18th and 19th century restrictions placed on women, was Amy Marcy Cheney, better known by her married name, Amy Beach. She became the only female composer of her generation to be taken seriously, achieving fame in both the United States and Europe. Not a household name, it nevertheless has been etched in the American Classical Hall of Fame Museum and on ‘the Hatch Shell’ as the only successful female composer.

Amy Beach

Photographer Unknown:  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) – Amy Beach – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Born in Henniker, New Hampshire, this day, September 5, 1867, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was a concert pianist and the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music.

Within a year of her birth, she was recognized as a child prodigy on the piano; she could sing forty tunes at age one, and a year later, harmonize with her mother singing. By age four, she was playing her own compositions on the piano. She began serious piano lessons with her mother at age six and made her Boston concert debut at age sixteen to great acclaim. Within two years she had performed Chopin’s F Minor Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony and had begun to tour widely as an acclaimed  soloist.

Well known for her large repertoire of musical and solo achievements, Beach’s music career however was curtailed in 1885 in favor of homemaking, when as a young girl of 18 she married Henry Beach, a Boston surgeon twenty-five years her senior. Dr Beach limited Amy’s public performances to one annual recital and encouraged her to devote herself to composition, allowing her to publish her works under her new name, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

For 25 years up until her husband’s death in 1910, Amy Beach endured this arrangement. As a composer Beach overcame all cultural restrictions and obstacles to become the first successful female composer in a traditionally male dominated industry stunning the musical world with her complex styles of music composition and symphonies.

Her Festival Jubilate, written for the dedication of the Women’s Building at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, won her recognition as a serious composer in the Romantic genre. Some of her better known milestones are pieces such as Mass in E flat Major and Symphony in E Minor (known as the Gaelic Symphony) which in 1896 was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This made Beach the first American woman to compose music performed by a major orchestra. The symphony, characterized by its Irish-American themes, placed Beach high in the top rank of American composers. She herself premiered with the same orchestra in 1899 with Piano Concerto in C-Sharp Minor.

Following the death of her husband in 1910, Beach resumed her concert career, traveling to Europe performing her own works. Returning triumphantly to Boston in 1914, she devoted the rest of her life to concert tours and composition. With numerous performances all over the world, Beach became one of the most influential musical artists of all time.

Take some time out to let yourself be whisked away by Beach’s Berceuse for Cello & Piano

Beach was instrumental in advancing the cause of American female composers. She became a founding member and first president of the Society of American Women Composers in 1925 and was associated with the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference.

Beach died in 1944 of a chronic heart disease in her New York home, at the age of 77, leaving a large part of her will to the MacDowell Colony, an art colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire,  founded in 1907 by Marian MacDowell, pianist and wife of composer Edward MacDowell.

During her life time, Beach became one of the most renowned artists inspiring a host of emerging talent. She wrote more than 150 works and published almost all of them. Sadly, her legacy fell between the cracks of male dominance after her death.  The scope of her legacy would have faded into obscurity if it were not for a group of female musicians who resurrected her works in 1990 and celebrated her pioneering grit and fortitude in the face of female oppression in the early part of the last century and before.

In 1999, one-hundred and thirty two years after her birth, Beach was Awarded a prestigious place in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

In July 2000, the Boston Pops finally accorded Beach a place on the famous granite wall called, Hatch Shell that comprises the orchestral stage and records the names of the world’s most influential music artists. Hers is the only woman’s name among 86 other composers, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy.

And finally, here’s another Beach composition for the road –  Romance for Violin and Piano. Enjoy!

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“Remember that technique is valuable only as a means to an end.  You must first have something to say–something which demands expression from the depths of your soul. If you feel deeply and know how to express what you feel, you make others feel.”  ~ Amy Cheney Beach

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