Amy Beach, Victorian Feminist?

In my last post, I wrote of Paul’s exhortation to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  I had many hymns and spiritual songs by women to choose from, but little in the way of psalms.  I shall remedy that.

Amy Marcy Cheney was New Hampshire born, the only child in a very proper Victorian era household in 1867.  Her father was a paper importer and manufacturer and a Freewill Baptist. Her mother was an amateur singer and pianist and a Calvinist Congregationalist.  It was with mother that she attended Sunday School.  Amy was unusually gifted with musical talent.  At one year, she could hum 40 tunes in key, and that was before she could speak.  At age two, she could improvise counter-melody to anything her mother sang.  At three, she taught herself to read. By age four, she composed music in her head.  She wanted desperately to play the piano, but her mother thought otherwise for to indulge that would undermine parental authority.  Nevertheless, Amy composed mentally, saved up the compositions in her mind, and by the age of six, her parents relented.  She took formal lessons with her mother.  In the folkways of that era, middle and upper class women were rejected from careers in music.  Again, strong willed Amy, beginning at age seven, was able to give public recitals of works by the masters and her own works.  When the family moved to the Boston area in 1875, her parents allowed her training under local piano masters.  At age fourteen, she received some formal training in composition, but other than one year of this, she was self-taught.  Her concert debut in 1883 was well received by critics and audiences.

In 1885, she married Dr. H.H. Beach, a Boston surgeon 24 years older than she and she changed her name on concert programs to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.  He thought it improper for a married woman to support herself, so she gave any profits from concerts to charity and agreed to never teach piano.  Under her husband’s insistence, she spent more ladylike time in composition without any instruction, though she believed she was primarily a pianist.   She collected every book she found on composition and theory and trained herself.

Her first truly major success was a Mass in E-flat major in 1892.   The newspaper music critics placed her into the upper rank of American composers.  It was the first piece composed by a woman performed by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, and through this, she was the first American woman to compose and publish a symphony. However, critics did go to great lengths to relate her compositions to her gender.  It wasn’t until 1898 that critics stopped doing this.   Doctor Beach died in 1910, and her mother shortly thereafter.  Childless Amy went to Europe to recover from her grief and there she changed her name to Amy Beach.  There she resumed giving concerts to great acclaim.  Upon return to the United States in 1914, she continued to compose. In 1930, she became the composer in residence at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York where she found her music used in the previous years had been attributed to her husband.  “Mrs.” was added to the name from 1931 on.   Since her husband was no longer in the picture, she was able to teach.  In addition she was a speaker and performer for such places as the University of New Hampshire, created “Beach Clubs” to teach children in music, and was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers. She became a virtual composer-in-residence at St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.  After her death in 1944 from heart disease, her work became neglected and unused until the 1990s and the rise of feminism.  She wrote over 300 works and published most of them. About a third have been recorded, but there is no known recording by her.  Today, many of her works have returned to the concert stage.   The American classical Music Hall of Fame honored her in 1999.

The psalm music she wrote and which I previously referred to was “Festivale Jubilate”, commissioned to dedicate the Women’s Building of the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.  She wrote it in 1892 at the age of 17.   The music is now in the public domain.  Her SATB arrangement is freely available online.  The words are taken directly from the entirety of Psalm 100.  The religious theme no doubt came from her deeply held beliefs.  Her sacred works remained in the repertory of church choirs even when her other works were ignored.

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