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. Her “Gaelic” Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. She was one of the first American composers to succeed without the benefit of European training, and one of the most respected and acclaimed American composers of her era. As a pianist, she was acclaimed for concerts she gave featuring her own music in the United States and in Germany.
Early years and musical education
Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire on September 5, 1867 to Charles Abbott Cheney (nephew of Oren B. Cheney, who founded Bates College) and Clara Imogene Marcy Cheney. Artistic ability appears to have run in the family: Clara was reputedly an “excellent pianist and singer,”, Amy showed every sign of a child prodigy. She was able to sing forty songs accurately by age one, she was capable of improvising counter-melody by age two, and she taught herself to read at age three. At four, she composed three waltzes for piano during a summer at her grandfather’s farm in West Henniker, NH, despite the absence of a piano; instead, she composed the pieces mentally and played them when she returned home. She could also play music by ear, including four-part hymns. The family struggled to keep up with her musical interests and demands. Her mother sang and played for her, but attempted to prevent young Amy from playing the family piano herself, believing that to indulge the child’s wishes in this respect would damage parental authority. Amy often commanded what music was played in the home and how, becoming enraged if it did not meet her standards.
Amy began formal piano lessons with her mother at age six, and soon gave public recitals of works by Handel, Beethoven, and Chopin, as well as her own pieces. One such recital was reviewed in arts journal The Folio, and multiple agents proposed concert tours for the young pianist, which her parents declined – a decision for which Amy was later grateful.
In 1875, the Cheney family moved to Chelsea, a suburb just across the Mystic River from Boston. They were advised there to enroll Amy in a European conservatory, but opted instead for local training, hiring Ernst Perabo and later Carl Baermann (himself a student of Franz Liszt) as piano teachers. In 1881–82, fourteen-year-old Amy also studied harmony and counterpoint with Junius W. Hill. This would be her only formal instruction as a composer, but “she collected every book she could find on theory, composition, and orchestration … she taught herself … counterpoint, harmony, fugue,” even translating Gevaert’s and Berlioz’s French treatises on orchestration, considered “most composers’ bibles,” into English for herself.
Amy Cheney made her concert debut at age sixteen on October 18, 1883 in a “Promenade Concert” conducted by Adolph Neuendorff at Boston’s Music Hall, where she played Chopin’s Rondo in E-flat and was piano soloist in Moscheles’s piano concerto No. 3 in G minor, to general acclaim: as biographer Fried Block comments, “it is hard to imagine a more positive critical reaction to a debut,” and her audience was “enthusiastic in the extreme.” The next two years of her career included performances in Chickering Hall, and she starred in the final performance of the Boston Symphony’s 1884–85 season.
Amy would later recall one rehearsal for a Mendelssohn concerto in 1885, when the conductor slowed the orchestra during the last movement, attempting to go easy on the teenage soloist. When Amy began the piano part, however, she played at full prescribed tempo: “I did not know that he was sparing me, but I did know that the tempo dragged, and I swung the orchestra into time”.
Amy was married the same year (1885) to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a Boston surgeon twenty-four years her senior (she was eighteen at the time). Her name would subsequently be listed on concert programs and published compositions as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.” The marriage was conditioned upon her willingness “to live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts. She agreed never to teach piano, an activity widely associated with women” and regarded as providing “pin money.” She further agreed to limit performances to two public recitals per year, with profits donated to charity, and to devote herself more to composition than to performance (although, as she wrote, “I thought I was a pianist first and foremost.”) Her self-guided education in composition was also necessitated by Dr. Beach, who disapproved of his wife studying with a tutor. Restrictions like these were typical for middle- and upper-class women of the time: as it was explained to a European counterpart, Fanny Mendelssohn, “Music will perhaps become his [Fanny’s brother Felix Mendelssohn’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”.
Rise to prominence
A major compositional success came with her Mass in E-flat major, which was performed in 1892 by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, which since its foundation in 1815 had never performed a piece composed by a woman. Newspaper music critics which responded to the Mass by declaring Beach one of America’s foremost composers, comparing the piece to Masses by Cherubini and Bach.
Beach followed this up with an important milestone in music history: her Gaelic Symphony, the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. It premiered October 30, 1896, performed by the Boston Symphony “with exceptional success,” although “whatever the merits or defects of the symphony were thought to be, critics went to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to relate them to the composer’s sex.” Composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931) wrote to Beach that he and his colleague Horatio Parker (1863–1919) had attended the Gaelic Symphony’s premiere and much enjoyed it: “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you like it or not – one of the boys.” These “boys” were a group of composers unofficially known as the Second New England School, and included not only Chadwick and Parker but also John Knowles Paine (1839–1926), Arthur Foote (1853–1937), and Edward MacDowell (1860–1908). With the addition of Beach, they collectively became known as the Boston Six, of whom Beach was the youngest.
In 1900, the Boston Symphony premiered Beach’s Piano Concerto, with the composer as soloist. It has been suggested that the piece suggests Beach’s struggles against her mother and husband for control of her musical life.
Franz Kneisel was a leading violinist in Boston and beyond, having been hired at about age 20 by Wilhelm Gericke, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as concertmaster of the orchestra. Soon after arriving in Boston, he formed the Kneisel String Quartet with three other string players of the Boston Symphony. (The Quartet lasted until 1917. Meantime Kneisel moved to New York in 1905.) In 1894 Amy had joined the Quartet in performing Robert Schumann’s Quintet for piano and strings.
In January 1897 Amy played, with Franz Kneisel, in the premiere of her Sonata for Piano and Violin, which she had composed in the spring of 1896. Critical reception In New York was mixed, but in Europe it was better: composer and pianist Teresa Carreño performed the piece with violinist Carl Halir in Berlin, October 1899 and wrote to Amy:
“I assure you that I never had a greater pleasure in my life than the one I had in working out your beautiful sonata and having the good luck to bring it before the German public…It really met with a decided success and this is said to the credit of the public.”
In 1900, with the Kneisel Quartet, Amy performed the Brahms quintet for Piano and Strings. Beach wrote her own Quintet for piano and strings, in F-sharp minor, in 1905. “During Beach’s lifetime, the work had well over forty performances, in dozens of cities, over the radio, and by many string quartets. A large number of those performances were with the composer at the piano, most notably during a lengthy tour in 1916 and 1917 with the Kneisel Quartet.” This was the 33rd and last season for the Quartet. Amy performed her Quintet with them in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Variations on Balkan Themes, Beach’s “longest and most important solo” piano work, was composed in 1904. It responded to revolts in the Balkans against the then ruling Ottoman Empire.
Widowhood, years in Europe
Her husband died in June 1910 (the couple had been childless) and her mother 7 months later. Her father, Charles Cheney, had died in 1895. Beach felt unable to work for a while. She went to Europe in hopes of recovering there. In Europe she changed her name to “Amy Beach”. She travelled together with Marcella (Marcia) Craft, an American soprano who was “prima donna of the Berlin Royal Opera.” Beach’s first year in Europe “was of almost entire rest.” In 1912 she gradually resumed giving concerts, Her European debut was in Dresden, October 1912, playing her violin and piano sonata with violinist “Dr. Bülau,” to favorable reviews. In Munich in January 1913, she gave a concert, again with her violin sonata, but now with three sets of songs, two of her own and one by Brahms, and solo piano music by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Two critics were rather unfavorable, one calling Beach’s songs “kitschy.” She was unfazed, saying the audience was “large and very enthusiastic.” Demand arose for sheet music of Beach’s songs and solo piano pieces, beyond the supply that Beach’s publisher Arthur P. Schmidt had available for German music stores. Later In January, still in Munich, she performed in her Piano Quintet; a critic praised her composing, which he did not like all that well, more than her playing. In a further concert in Breslau, only three of Beach’s songs were on the program, fewer than in Munich.
In November–December 1913 she played the solo part in her Piano Concerto with orchestras in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Berlin. Her Gaelic Symphony was also performed in Hamburg and Leipzig. A Hamburg critic wrote “we have before us undeniably a possessor of musical gifts of the highest kind; a musical nature touched with genius.” She was greeted as the first American woman “able to compose music of a European quality of excellence.”
Return to America and later life
She returned to America in 1914, not long after the beginning of World War I. Beach and Craft made pro-German statements to the American press, but Beach said her allegiance was to “the musical, not the militaristic Germany.” She gave some manuscripts of music she had written in Europe to Craft, who brought them back to the U.S. Beach delayed her own departure until September 1914 and so had a further trunkful of manuscripts confiscated at the Belgian border. Beach eventually recovered the trunk and contents in 1929.
In 1915, the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal and the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. Amy Beach was honored often by concerts of her music and receptions during 1915, and her Panama Hymn was commissioned for the occasion. In 1915 and again in 1916 Amy in San Francisco visited her aunt Franc and cousin Ethel, who by then were her closest living relatives. About August 6, 1916, Amy, Franc, and Ethel left San Francisco together, leaving Franc’s husband Lyman behind, a “fifty-year-old marriage broken apart”, for unknown reasons. The three women took up residence in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, where Franc and Amy’s mother had been born. Lyman “was settled” in a Veterans’ Home in California from 1917 until his death in 1922. After 1916, “Hillsborough was Beach’s official residence: there she voted in presidential elections.” In 1918, Amy’s cousin Ethel “developed a terminal illness,” and Amy spent time taking care of her, as Franc, at age 75, “could hardly” do so by herself.
Aside from concert tours and the time of Ethel’s illness until her death in 1920, Beach also spent part of her time in New York. Someone had asked her if she were the daughter of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. She resumed using that married name, but used “Amy Beach” on bookplates and stationery. For a few summers she composed at her cottage in Centerville, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.
While continuing to get income from her compositions published by Arthur P. Schmidt, during 1914–1921 she had new compositions published by G. Schirmer. The Centerville cottage had been built on a five-acre property Amy had bought with royalties from one song, Ecstasy, 1892, her most successful up until then.
From 1921 on she spent part of each summer as a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she composed several works and encountered other women composers and/or musicians, including Emilie Frances Bauer, Marion Bauer, Mabel Wheeler Daniels, Fannie Charles Dillon, and Ethel Glenn Hier, who “were or became long-time friends” of Beach. But there were “generational and gender divisions” among the Fellows in music, with some feeling that Beach’s music was “no longer fashionable”.
In 1924 Beach sold the house in Boston she had inherited from her husband. Her aunt Franc had become “feeble” around 1920, developed dementia in 1924, and died in November 1925 in Hillsborough, after which Beach had no surviving relatives as close as Ethel and Franc had been. In the fall of 1930 Beach rented a studio apartment in New York. There she became the virtual composer-in-residence at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Her music had been used during the previous 20 years in services at the church, attributed to “H. H. A. Beach”, with “Mrs.” added only from 1931 on.
She used her status as the top female American composer to further the careers of young musicians. While she had agreed not to give private music lessons while married, Beach was able to work as a music educator during the early 20th century. She served as President of the Board of Councillors of the New England Conservatory of Music. 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 received an honorary master’s degree in 1928. She also worked to create “Beach Clubs,” which helped teach and educate children in music. She served as leader of some organizations focused on music education and women, including the Society of American Women Composers as its first president.
Beach spent the winter and spring of 1928–29 in Rome. She went to concerts “almost daily” and found Respighi’s Feste Romane, just written in 1928, to be “superbly brilliant,” but disliked a piece by Paul Hindemith. In March 1929 she gave a concert to benefit the American Hospital in Rome, in which her song “The Year’s at the Spring” was encored and a “large sum of money” was raised. Beach, like her friends in Rome, briefly became an admirer of the Italian dictator Mussolini. She returned to the United States with a two-week stopover in Leipzig, where she met her old friend, the singer Marcella Craft.
She was a member of Chapter R (New York City) of the P.E.O. Sisterhood. Late in her life, she collaborated on the “Ballad of P.E.O.” with the words written by Ruth Comfort Mitchell, Chapter BZ/California. Heart disease led to Beach’s retirement in 1940 and her death in New York City in 1944. Amy Beach is buried with her husband in the Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.
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. 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 a one-act opera, Cabildo, and a variety of other works.
She wrote the Gaelic Symphony (1896) and the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor. Another orchestral piece, Bal masque, has a solo piano version. Two further pieces, Eilende Wolken and Jephthah’s Daughter, are for orchestra with voice.
Sacred choral works among Beach’s compositions are mainly for 4 voices and organ, but a few are for voices and orchestra, two being the Mass in E-flat major (1892) and her setting of St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun (1924, 1928), first performed at St. Bartholomew’s in New York. A setting of the Te Deum with organ was first performed by the choir of men and boys at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston. The Capitol Hill Choral Society of Washington, D.C., recorded the Canticle of the Sun, seven Communion Responses, and other pieces by Beach in 1998, led by its Musical Director Betty Buchanan, who founded the Society in 1983.
There are some tens of secular choral works, accompanied by orchestra, piano, or organ.
Publisher Arthur P. Schmidt once complained to Beach that her “choral pieces had practically no sale”.
Her chamber music compositions include a violin and piano sonata (recorded on seven different labels), a Romance and three further pieces for violin and piano, a piano trio, a string quartet, and a piano quintet.
Solo piano music
One of the many pieces is Variations on Balkan Themes. Large numbers of solo piano pieces have been recorded by pianists Kirsten Johnson (4-disc set), Joanne Polk (3-disc set), and Virginia Eskin (see the Discography).
She was most popular, however, for her songs, of which she wrote about 150. The words of about five each are her own and those of H. H. A. Beach, for the rest by other poets. “The Year’s At the Spring” from Three Browning Songs, Op. 44 is perhaps Beach’s best-known work. Despite the volume and popularity of the songs during her lifetime, no single-composer collection of Beach’s songs exists. Some 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.
Beach was a musical intellectual who wrote for journals, newspapers, and other publications. She gave advice to young musicians and composers – especially female composers. From career to piano technique advice, Beach readily provided her opinions in articles such as, “To the Girl who Wants to Compose”, and “Emotion Versus Intellect in Music.” In 1915, she had written Music’s Ten Commandments as Given for Young Composers, which expressed many of her self-teaching principles.
Late 20th century and early 21st century revival and reception
Despite her fame and recognition during her lifetime, Beach was largely neglected after her death in 1944 until the late 20th century. Efforts to revive interest in Beach’s works have been largely successful during the last few decades.
The symphony has received praise from modern critics, such as Andrew Achenbach of Gramophone, who in 2003 lauded the work for its “big heart, irresistible charm and confident progress.” In 2016, Jonathan Blumhofer of The Arts Fuse wrote:
“To my ears, it is by far the finest symphony by an American composer before Ives and, by a wide margin, better than a lot that came after him. It surely is the most exciting symphony penned by an American before World War I. Her command of instrumentation throughout the Symphony was consistently excellent and colorful. The manner in which she balanced content and form succeeds where her contemporaries like George Whitefield Chadwick, John Knowles Paine, and Horatio Parker so often came up short: somehow Beach’s Symphony is never daunted by the long shadows Brahms and Beethoven cast across the Atlantic. It’s a fresh, invigorating, and personal statement in a genre that has offered plenty of examples of pieces that demonstrate none of those qualities.”
Beach’s Piano Concerto has been praised as an overlooked masterwork by modern critics. In 1994 Phil Greenfield of The Baltimore Sun called it “a colorful, dashing work that might become extremely popular if enough people get a chance to hear it. In 2000 Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle also lauded the composition, writing:
“Its four movements are packed with incident – beautifully shaped melodies (several of them drawn from her songs), a forthright rhythmic profile and a vivacious and sometimes contentious interplay between soloist and orchestra. The piano part is as flashy and demanding as a virtuoso vehicle calls for, but there is also an element of poignancy about it – a sense of constraint that seems to shadow even the work’s most extroverted passages.”
Andrew Achenbach of Gramophone similarly declared it “ambitious” and “singularly impressive… a rewarding achievement all round, full of brilliantly idiomatic solo writing … lent further autobiographical intrigue by its assimilation of thematic material from three early songs”.
Tributes and memorials
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. 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. In honor of Beach’s 150th birthday, Marty Walsh (politician), Mayor of the City of Boston, declared September 5, 2017, “Amy Beach Day.” “I, Martin J. Walsh, Mayor of Boston, do hereby declare September 5, 2017 to be: Amy Beach Day in the City of Boston. I urge all my fellow Bostonians to join me in recognizing and honoring Amy Beach as one of the most successful American composers.” The New York Times commemorated Beach’s sesquicentennial with an article, “Amy Beach, a Pioneering American Composer, Turns 150” by William Robin
Solo piano music.
Piano Music, Vol. 1, The Early Works, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7317
Piano Music, Vol. 2, The Turn of the Century, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7329
Piano Music, Vol. 3, The Mature Years, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7351
Piano Music, Vol. 4, The Late Works, Kirsten Johnson, piano, Guild GMCD 7387
By the Still Waters, Joanne Polk, piano, Allmusic Z6693
Under the Stars, Joanne Polk, piano, Arabesque, B000005ZYW
Fire Flies, Joanne Polk, piano. “Manufactured on demand”
Other chamber music
Amy Beach, Sonata for violin and piano in A minor, Op. 34:
Recorded on the following labels: Albany No. 150, Arabesque No. 6747, Centaur Nos. 2312, 2767, Chandos No. 10162, Koch Nos. 7223, 7281, NWW No. 80542, Summit No. 270, White Pine no. 202. More details on Chandos 10162:
Amy Beach, Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor; Quartet for Strings; Pastorale for Wind Quintet; and Sketches for Piano, Dreaming. Performed by the Ambache Chamber Ensemble. Chandos Records 10162
Centaur 2312 also has the Barcarolle for violin and piano, the three pieces for violin and piano Op. 40, the Romance Op. 23, and the Invocation Op. 55, all performed by Laura Klugholz, violin/viola, and Jill Timmons, piano
Mrs. H.H.A. Amy Beach (1867–1944), music for two pianos. Virginia Eskin and Kathleen Supové, pianists. Koch 3-7345-2
Amy Beach, Piano Quintet in F# minor, Op. 67. Old Stoughton String Quartet. AMRC 0040. Ambache Ensemble Chandos Records 9752
Amy Beach, Songs. Sung by mezzo-soprano Katherine Kelton and accompanied by pianist Catherine Bringerud. Naxos 8559191
Chamber Music CDs: 2 Ambache Ensemble recordings on Chandos Records (9752 & 10162), both awarded rosettes in the Penguin Guide: 1) Piano Quintet, Op 67; Theme & Variations, Op 80; Piano Trio, Op 50. 2) String Quartet. Op 89; Violin Sonata, Op 34; Pastorale, Op 151; Dreaming, Op 50 No 3.
Orchestral music, possibly with chorus
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, Betty Buchanan, Music Director, Albany Records, 1998, TROY295
Amy Beach, Grand Mass in E-flat major. Performed by the Stow Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Albany Records, 1995. TROY179
Amy Beach, Grand Mass in E-flat major, Performed by the Michael May Festival Chorus. Compact disc. Newport Classic, 1989, 60008
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. Note: one review of this mentions “Symphony No. 2” but Beach only wrote one symphony, the Gaelic.