Take all of them, the symphonists, opera composers, heads of conservatories, touring pianists. George Whitefield Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Arthur Foote: who was the most-performed American composer in that generation before the First World War? It was none of these men. It was Amy Beach.
Amy Beach (1867–1944). Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1899)
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.
In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
The generation of American-born classical composers before the First World War includes some big names well known to music historians, if not to the general public nowadays. Put George Chadwick in there, as well as Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Arthur Foote, Arthur Farwell, Charles Cadman. The biggest name of all belongs to Charles Ives, of course, as he was living and composing then, but we always have to make an exception for him since hardly anyone knew about him until much later.
Take all those men, the symphonists, the opera composers, the respected heads of conservatories, the touring pianists and folklorists, and then take a guess at who was the most-performed American classical composer of the time. My guess would’ve been Chadwick, perhaps MacDowell. Well, I would’ve been wrong. The composer with the most performances was none of these men. It was Amy Beach.
Most of her pieces, more than 150 of them, were art songs, but she wrote more than two dozen chamber works, and dozens upon dozens of choral and vocal chamber works, both sacred and secular. Her critical reputation, though, rested mainly on a few orchestral pieces, the Gaelic Symphony, the Bal masque, a Mass, and from 1899, her Piano Concerto, which we’ll hear today.
That Gaelic Symphony has been called the best symphony by any American before Ives, and it brings up a pivotal moment in American music created by, of all people, Antonín Dvořák. He was in the States in the early 1890s and wrote a series of articles in 1892 on the state of American music, which, not to put too fine a point on it, he found wanting.
Remember that the young United States was even younger in terms of classical music culture. As we saw last month in our show on Beethoven’s Ninth, the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest symphony orchestra, wasn’t founded until 1842. A second one in that city, the New York Symphony, was founded in 1878. St. Louis had one in 1880, Boston in 1881, Chicago in 1891, and Philadelphia, not until all the way to 1900. There were ad hoc festival orchestras here and there, but there were not many places at all for a homegrown orchestral music to establish itself.
As for composers, early on there were a couple of outliers: Anthony Philip Heinrich was a German immigrant living in a Kentucky log cabin writing wild, strange pieces about pigeons, condors, and William Penn. William Henry Fry was the first native-born American to compose large orchestral pieces which, for all their imagination and for all his publicity efforts, were generally ignored.
(But if you’re interested, you must check out the William Henry Fry CD produced by the Fleisher Collection!)
Composer George Frederick Bristow was a first violinist in the New York Philharmonic only one year after its founding, but they weren’t playing his music. William Henry Fry, who was also a newspaper music critic, whipped this up into a public scandal, leading to Bristow’s resigning from the orchestra. He returned later, and they later did play one of his symphonies, but Americans being played by American orchestras remained a rarity for decades.
On top of that, anyone interested in composing left the country and went to Germany to study. Although this added professionalism and the latest European techniques to their music, it didn’t encourage an American voice. And this brings us to Dvořák, who said in 1892 that for Americans to have their own music, their institutions needed to support it, and their composers needed to compose like Americans. Which meant, to him, using the music that is unique to America, the African American and Native American folk music that is found here and nowhere else in the world.
And this brings us to Amy Beach. New Hampshire-born in 1867, she never left the States to study. She was, actually, fairly miraculous. At one year old she could sing 40 songs perfectly. She was reading at three. At four, at her grandfather’s farm and without a piano, she composed waltzes for piano, playing them when she came home. She played four-part hymns by ear, and her mother finally relented and began teaching her piano when Amy was six.
She became a pianist phenom, concertizing as a young girl. At 16 she was playing an Ignaz Moscheles concerto in Boston, but before then she had already acquired Berlioz’s orchestration book and had translated it into English.
At 18 she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, who was 42, a highly respected Boston surgeon, writer, teacher, consultant, and who was performing surgery in the Civil War before Amy was even born. He was an amateur singer and we know he was something of a poet only because Amy set some of his poems to music, which we’ll get to shortly.
He did restrict her performing career, however, and to this she readily acquiesced. While it seems wrong to us, it was common then, in their upper-middle-class circles. And it wasn’t because Amy Beach would be performing. Really, it was that wives should not be seen making money, as that would cast a shadow on the reputation of the husband: that he wasn’t able to bring home the bacon. In fact, he did not even want her teaching piano. He did allow her to give two concerts a year—as long as all the proceeds went to charity.
On the other hand, he did encourage her to compose. The laugh line here, seems to me, is that nobody sees composers as making money. But, compose she did, and she composed and was published under the name of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. That, to him and to her, was the proper way.
Mrs. Beach was not hidden from the public, far from it. Her works—songs mostly but not just songs—began to be performed widely. She did concertize a couple of times a year, she was involved in music organizations, and she wrote. When Dvořák said that American composers should be using African American and Native American materials in their works, she demurred, saying that, after all, her ancestry was Irish and she was going to use Irish music, and wrote her Gaelic Symphony in 1896 to prove her point. The irony is, Beach had already used both African American and Native American music in early folksong settings as other composers were by then doing, so she was only offering the idea to Mr. Dvořák that there was more to “American” music than the two unique sources he’d suggested.
And to early songs did Amy Beach turn when the opportunity for a piano concerto came up. Wilhelm Gericke, the conductor of the Boston Symphony, asked her to not only write a concerto, but to be the soloist. They had already performed her Gaelic Symphony, after all, her reputation was growing, and she was a world-class pianist.
The first movement, which is about half the length of the entire concerto, uses a song from her Opus 1 set of songs. It comes in as the second theme, the piano bringing it in by itself. For the second movement, the perpetual motion Scherzo, Beach goes to her Opus 2, and to a poem by her husband about the moon called “Empress of Night”:
Out of the darkness,
Radiant with light,
Shineth her Brightness,
Empress of Night.
As granules of gold,
From her lofty height,
Or cataract bold
Falleth her jewels
On ev’ry side,
Lighting the joybells,
Piercing the treeboughs
That wave in the breeze,
Painting their shadows
Among dead leaves;
Kissing the sea foam
That flies in the air,
When tossed from its home
In waves so fair;
Silv’ring all clouds
That darken her way,
As she lifts the shrouds,
Of breaking day.
I think that those jewels of light continually falling are the inspiration of those non-stop piano arpeggiations, which almost overwhelm the orchestra at times.
The third movement, Largo, also comes from an Opus 2 song, also by Henry Beach, “Twilight”:
No sun to warm
The darkening cloud of mist,
The steamy earth sends up
A veil of gray and damp
To kiss the green and tender leaves
And leave its cool imprint
In limpid pearls of dew.
The blackened trunks and boughs
In ghostly silhouette
Mark grimly in the coming eve
The shadows of the past. All sounds are stilled,
The birds have hushed themselves to rest
And night comes fast, to drop her pall
Till morn brings life to all.
The finale, a light and joyous Allegro, refers to music from the third movement. The audience, by accounts, loved the concerto on that April 6th, 1900 premiere, and although it did not receive a good review in Boston, Amy Beach did perform it, as Amy Beach, numerous times throughout Europe, after her husband died. And it has since received glowing reviews, not only for its historical value as the first piano concerto by an American woman, but on its own terms as an important, even brilliant work.
That has much to do with the recording we are about to hear. On Fleisher Discoveries, Alan Feinberg is the soloist, and Kenneth Schermerhorn leads the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the Piano Concerto of Amy Beach.
[Amy Beach (1867–1944). Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1899)]
The Piano Concerto of Amy Beach. The pianist was Alan Feinberg, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn. This is Fleisher Discoveries, and I’m Kile Smith.
As I mentioned, Amy Beach went on to perform her concerto numerous times. Her husband died in 1910, and so their agreement that she curtail her performing was no longer binding. She toured Europe with it, and also accompanied a soprano in recitals of music by Beach and others. She also went to “Amy Beach” instead of “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach,” she said, because Europeans were confused by the “Mrs.,” and what, after all, was her real name? Later, back in America, she most often went by “Amy” as a performer, but kept the “Mrs. H. H. A.” in publications. She seemed to be not too rigid about it, nor did she ever blame her husband for the confusion or even the restrictions, saying that they had had a warm and happy marriage.
What I don’t know—and wish I did—was her reaction to George Whitefield Chadwick. Way back in 1896, after her Gaelic Symphony premiere, he and Horatio Parker came up to her. That may have been unsettling, to see these two standard-bearers of New England and therefore of American classical music approach. But Chadwick said that they had loved her piece, and that, like it or not, she was now “one of the boys.” And when musicologists now refer to that Second New England School in American music history, one of the most important members of it—maybe the most important, and certainly at the time the most performed—was Amy Beach.
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And thanks again for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.