“I am pleased that an American and a woman can produce such strong and beautiful musical ideas… You are now one of the boys.” – George Chadwick
Today, we’re going to take a look into why Amy Beach became the first notable, American, woman composer.
Young Amy Cheney
The Cheneys were an old New England family, descended from colonial settlers. In 1871, Beach’s family moved from New Hampshire to Boston so that her father could work as a paper importer. The city was central for educational opportunities for women. (GO BOSTON!) This was beneficial to the success of Beach as compared to other women composers of her time who may not have had access to the same type of education. When it came to music, Beach first learned piano from her mother around the young age of six. Her mother observed her exceptional musical skills in several letters:
“Her gift for composition showed itself in babyhood- before she was two years old she would, when being rocked to sleep in my arms, improvise a perfectly correct alto to any soprano I might sing.”- in a letter to her cousin, Anna
Let’s talk about this. That is a skill that is freaky impressive. The ability to hear a melody and mentally think of the harmonization of multiple intervals above or below the pitch center and perform it on the spot is WILD. Most people can sing in an interval that is a third above a melody (pretty common harmony in Western based music). However, young Amy Beach was not only singing an improvised harmony, but she was doing it BELOW the melody. She demonstrated immense talents in performance and a strong ability in musical retention. “She played by ear anything that she heard her mother play… movements from Beethoven’s sonatas, several Chopin waltzes, and fragments by other masters.” She was then placed into lessons with Ernst Perabo when the family lived in Boston. In 1880, when Beach was just thirteen years old, Perabo received a letter from famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on her talent stating,
“I was delighted with Miss Cheney’s playing. She certainly has a wonderful gift; and shows promise of great excellence. Indeed one knows not what heights she may reach in her profession.”
Later in the letter, Longfellow mentions Perabo’s intentions to send Beach to Germany to continue her musical instruction. However, her parents believed she should stay local and she was eventually placed into her only year of composition and harmony lessons with Junius W. Hill at thirteen years old. AGAIN. FREAKY IMPRESSIVE. Amy Beach became the first notable American woman composer, but only had ONE year of formal composition training when she had just become a teenager. At just sixteen years old, she made her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a piano soloist. She had lined up a promising career as a performer, however just two years later, in 1885, she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach and she entered the world of composition. Although Amy Beach never made it to European conservatories or studied composition at length- per the decision of her parents- her childhood in Boston with two notable teachers as her influence shaped her, if not into the composer she would become, into becoming a successful musician.
Well, why couldn’t Amy Beach continue to stay on the pathway towards becoming a performing superstar after getting married? It’s time to meet…
Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach was a notable surgeon in the Boston area who was older than Amy by twenty-five years. Amy Marcy Cheney caught the attention of the surgeon through her abilities as a pianist. In a correspondence from one of his patients at the time, her abilities are discussed “as being a young lady of remarkable talent and attainments.” In order to maintain the duties of a wife in the Victorian Era, newly married Amy Beach switched from a budding career in performance as a concert pianist to one of composition. She curtailed her performances to playing publicly once or twice throughout a year and sent the proceeds went to charity. New social circles where she was able to meet people in music, literature, and academics. Through her marriage, she was introduced to other members of the soon-to-be Second New England School. Famed singers performed her songs which contributed to her success as a composer.
Amy Beach found success as a composer by collaborating exclusively with publisher, Arthur P. Schmidt, who worked with many of the Boston Six. Schmidt was dedicated to creating a repertoire of an American school of music. According to the LaBudde Special Collections at the University of Missouri Kansas City, Arthur P. Schmidt was publishing Amy Beach’s music as early as 1890, just five years after she married and started composing professionally. Many other composers – especially women composers outside of the Boston area – would have faced trouble getting a large amount of their music published. Had it not been for Schmidt’s mission and Beach’s appealing compositional style, there would be no Amy Beach in the Boston Six.
Beach was a part of a circle of women composers such as Clara Kathleen Rogers and
Margaret Ruthven Lang who welcomed her. They also found success in publishing their works with Arthur P. Schmidt. In 1910, after the death of her husband, Amy Beach found liberation as a widow. She is described as “determined” because she toured Europe and advocated for performances of her work. From Mrs. H.H.A. Beach professionally, to simply “Amy Beach”, she was free to correspond with many of the leading singers and performers of the era, causing many of them to want to include her works and commission pieces for their repertoire, including a song cycle for the Baroness de Hegermann-Lindencrone. In 1912, Beach met the “Baroness” (she was neither royal nor titled) who served as
Beach’s European ambassador for her music and was known for her beauty and talented singing voice. The three songs were written in French and translated into English, for the Baroness was an American woman. Her songs were so well loved by the “Baroness” that in a letter to Amy Beach, she wrote “… [The songs] suit my voice very well, and seem as if you had written them knowing my voice. They are lovely.” Although Amy Beach showed promise as a concert pianist, it can be inferred that her notability would not have been recognized had her marriage and eventual shift in career pathways occurred.
Another attribute to the growth of Amy Beach as a composer was her development of the mental phenomenon, synesthesia. Synesthesia is the involuntary mental ability to see color while hearing sounds. Amy Beach utilized synesthesia in her compositions. Its presence is seen in her modal/key and subject/theme relationships, especially in song compositions. The first correlation between synesthesia and composer first appeared in the 19th century with musicians such as Liszt, Sibelius, and Amy Beach. However, some historians attribute the first explorations into geometry, dimensions, and form not to mathematicians and philosophers, but to Greco-Roman artists, proving that there has always been a correlation between the artist and form. However, upon reaching the Medieval ages, there becomes a written correlation between specifically color and form, then sound and color.
Synesthesia manifests itself in many forms, most commonly noted are the Grapheme-Color association where a person connects a certain number or letter with a color, personification where the synesthese identifies a form or letter with a certain personality trait, and number-form where the person when seeing an individual number then involuntarily visualizes a map of system of numbers. A common visualization form of synestheisa is the sound-color relationship that is noted in many composers and famous artists such as Wassily Kandinsky.
According to the NeuroImage journal article, “Pathways to Seeing Music: Enhanced Structural Connectivity in Colored-Music Synesthesia”, when discussing the sound-color relation, found there was a “unique pattern of connectivity between the visual and auditory association areas” in synestheses. This article reported on a study that was done following the connectivity of white matter in the brain and identifying that synestheses had a fuller collection of white matter compared to their non-synesthese counterparts in areas of their temporal and occipital lobes. According the New Sound: International Journal of Music article, “Synesthesia and Feminism: A Case Study on Amy Beach (1867-1944)”, by Jeremy Logan, there is a specificity to the nature of Amy Beach’s sound-color synesthesia where she associates more than just sounds or pitches, but entire modes and keys with colors.
The first report of Amy Beach using synesthesia started from family records of her as a child, telling her mother to play “the blue or the pink one” when demanding how music was played in the Cheney household. Logan demonstrates this connection by using the color psychology described by the 18th century German composer and poet Christian Schubart in his essay, “Affective Key Characteristics”. Whereas Amy Beach synesthetically compared keys to certain colors, Schubart synesthetically related keys to emotions or personality, a relationship that was discussed earlier between letters and personalities. Instead of seeing color, Schubart poetically described the key of G for example as “everything rustic, idyllic, and lyrical… in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart.” Logan uses this comparison to help give an understanding to Beach’s compositional choices. For example, in her famous song cycle, Browning Songs, Beach uses the key of D-flat to compose the first song “The Year’s at the Spring”. She has recorded an association between this key and the color violet. Logan states that in color psychology, violet is representative of deep contemplation and spirituality. According to Rasmussen College’s “Graphic Designer’s Guide to the Psychology of Color”, violet is in fact associated with contemplation and luxury. These traits can be found in the lyrics “And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; the hill-side’s dew-pearl’d” which can be indicative of a the images seen by a person awake early in the morning contemplating the world around them. The evidence of spirituality in this song can be found in the lyric, “God’s in His Heaven- All’s right with the world!” However, perhaps the luxurious nature of the color violet can be heard in the piano accompaniment which is meant to mimic the movement of the train ride Beach was on while she composed the piece mentally.
Throughout Amy Beach’s journey from child prodigy, debut solo performer, married composer, published musician, and traveling widow, she dedicated herself completely to her craft. Her dedication to studying treatises, abiding by her mental abilities, and her friendships with the publisher Arthur P. Schmidt and her encounters abroad created a name for herself as the first notable, American, woman composer.
Amy Beach was the first American woman to gain notability for a large orchestral work, the Gaelic symphony. The symphony garnered more attention by receiving longer reviews, and a wider reception than any of Beach’s other works. The piece has been described as reminiscent of Dvorak, because Beach used thematic material from Scottish, Irish, and English folk music-employing folk material from other cultures being a signature style in many of her works. Its praise was met with predetermined views on gender, with a journalist from the Kansas City Times describing it stating “although it was written by an American woman, it has in the main neither sex nor country” and a critic from the Kansas City Journal stated that the piece was successful because it “[betrayed] none of the weakness of feminism in the artistic sense.” The Gaelic Symphony was adored by conductors and notable musicians. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote to Beach in a letter about his reactions to the piece: “it is not often one enjoys so thoroughly the producing of what is to one a new work as I did your Symphony, because it is so full of real music, without any pretense or effects that are plastered on from the outside, but just real, sincere, simple and deep music: and one can only say that of about one percent of contemporary music.”
Amy Beach composed the Three Browning Songs in 1900 using text by poet Robert Browning, some of the most famous songs she composed.
Beach composed the first song, “The Year’s at the Spring” during a train ride. The rhythm of the train’s movement inspired the rhythm the composition of the piano line and building momentum in the vocal line till its climatic peak at the end. It was written in the key of D-flat, which Beach synesthetically tied to the color violet. According to color psychology, this is representative of deep contemplation and spirituality. In fact, the song is so popular that it is often sung at the end of the cycle or as an encore piece for sopranos.
The second song of the set, “Ah, Love, but a day!” uses an array of loud and soft dynamics and fast and slow tempo markings to create drama in the vocal line so although it has many high notes, they aren’t accented until the final repetition of the phrase “Ah, love” at the end. It was composed in the key of A-flat, which Amy Beach has associated with the soothing color of blue.
The last song, “I send my heart up to thee!” uses the first stanza of Browning’s poem, “In a gondola”. Beach’s use of offset rhythms works to create emotion and drama in the music, instead of focusing on using high notes in the vocal line. These two aspects work together to create the illusion of a gondola singer in Venice. Although Beach didn’t have a color affiliated specifically with B-flat, the composition’s key, she associated the next closest key, E-flat, with pink which is the color of love and devotion.
Amy Beach composed one opera in her lifetime, Cabildo, which uses an American backdrop of New Orleans to tell the story of a modern couple touring a cell where a famed pirate was held during the War of 1812. The woman gets separated from the touring group and falls asleep, dreaming of how the pirate would have escaped his cell and seeing the ghost of the woman he loved freeing him. Again, Beach demonstrates her trademark use of embedding folk songs, this time American, in large pieces of composition. She also uses Creole folk music multiple times in Cabildo as dance music or as motifs. Evidence of Beach’s compositional talents and success can be seen in all the manuscripts of her works. Even as a young child, Beach would mentally compose pieces when she didn’t have access to a piano, making all the editing marks before she would begin to pen the music to paper. This can be seen above in a copy of Beach’s Cabildo from the LaBudde Special Collections. Besides a couple editing marks that can be seen, her scores are mostly clean.
- Three Songs dedicated to the Baroness de Hegermann-Lindencrone
The Three Songs dedicated to the Baroness.. was a cycle made up of three French songs. In 1912, Beach met the “Baroness” (she was neither royal nor titled), who served as Beach’s European ambassador for her music and was known for her beauty and talented singing voice. At this time, Beach, now a widowed woman and free to travel and perform, was touring Europe and advocating for performances of her music. The songs have been orchestrated with string instruments as well as written for piano and voice. This cycle was so loved by the “Baroness” that in a letter to Amy Beach, she wrote “…[The songs] suit my voice very well, and seem as if you had written them knowing my voice. They are lovely.” The first two songs, “Chanson d’amour” and “Extase” both used texts by Victor Hugo and the last song, “Elle et moi” used a text by Félix Bovet.
The first song, “Chanson d’amour”, performed often with cello and piano, has a deeply virtuosic and busy piano accompaniment to support the love song in the vocal line. It is written in the key of E-flat, of love.
The second song, “Extase” was written in the key of A which, according to color psychology, evokes harmony and peace. The song begins with rolling chords in the piano and again develops an intensely full sound to support the climax of the vocal line.
The third song, “Elle et moi” has the most playful quality of all three songs. It was written in the key of F, a key without a recorded color connection for Beach, however it is closely related to the key of C which she related to the color white; this color represents purity and clarity. These traits can be heard in the fast piano line as well as the quickly moving vocal line. This is the first time that a melisma (many notes set to one syllable in music) is heard in the cycle.