Amy Beach was a distinguished yet underrated American composer who wrote many fine works for chorus, chamber ensembles, orchestra, and piano. She has the distinguished role of being the first American woman to write a symphony and the first woman in the world to have her symphony played by a major orchestra. Beach’s music most closely followed the Romantic tradition with lush melodies similar to those of Brahms, though she took a more contemporary and atonal route in her later works. In addition to her compositions and performances, Beach advocated for women’s rights throughout her life.
Born on September 5, 1867 in New Hampshire to a distinguished New England family, Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach was already a notable musician even as an infant. She was said to have memorized forty lullabies by the time she was one and by age four, she could play four part hymns and even began writing her own small works.
Beach’s family moved to Boston when she was eight, allowing her to study with notable pianists of the time. She made her orchestral debut at age 16, playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Two years later, she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a Harvard lecturer and physician. He asked her to limit public performances so she turned her focus towards composing instead.
Beach was largely self taught, with only a single year’s study in music theory, generally choosing to dissect the works of well-established composers and their treatises. After her husband death in 1910 and the loss of her mother just 7 months later, Beach sailed to Europe where she established a reputation as a formidable composer and pianist abroad. Upon her return, she began teaching piano as well. She also took on various causes, usually for furthering the rights of female composers and for music education.
Beach’s breakthrough as a composer occurred when her Mass in E-Flat was debuted by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston in 1892. She followed it with compositions like her infamous Gaelic Symphony, before writing her Festival Jubilate for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and her Song of Welcome at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Other notable compositions include Scottish Legend, and her opera Cabildo. She wrote many pieces of chamber music, such as her Piano Trio Op. 150, in addition to endless pieces of piano repertoire as well. A notable example would be her Piano Concerto in C minor. Beach wrote a colossal amount of choral works as well, some religious, some secular. All her works were critically well received, allowing her to grow in influence and fame.
Towards the end of her life, Beach became associated with the MacDowell Colony, a residence for artists in New Hampshire. She actually bequeathed her compositions to them in her will, meaning that all royalties from her pieces are given to this group. She died in 1944 at the age 77.
ABOUT ABIGAIL AUYEUNG
Abigail AuYeung is a cellist in CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra and an incoming sophomore at Hinsdale Central. In her free time, she enjoys falling down classical music rabbit holes, reading, and baking.