Amy Marcy Beach was a piano prodigy who turned to composing after marriage; she became the first American woman to achieve wide recognition as a composer. She set more than 150 songs, most of them in the unabashedly romantic style of her day, and was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers.
Born Amy Marcy Cheney in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, as she styled herself after her marriage to a prominent physician in 1885, became the first woman composer to achieve wide recognition in America. A child prodigy on the piano, she made her Boston concert debut at age sixteen. Within two years she had performed Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had begun to tour widely as a soloist.
After marriage to Dr. Beach, however, she curtailed her concertizing in favor of homemaking. It was during this period that Mrs. Beach first began to compose. Her Festival Jubilate, written for the dedication of the Women's Building at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, won recognition for her as a serious composer in the Romantic genre. She followed this success with a Gaelic Symphony, performed by the Boston Symphony in 1896, and her Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor in 1899, which she herself premiered with the same orchestra.
As a widow starting in 1910, Mrs. Beach resumed her concertizing in America and Germany and increased her compositional output. In addition to her piano music and large-scale orchestral works, she created more than 150 songs, almost all in the grand, operatic, heart-on-sleeve vein of the late 19th century. Settings like "Ah, Love, But a Day!" and "The Year's at the Spring," both poems by Robert Browning, became staples of the early 20th-century concert repertory.
After her death in 1944, Mrs. Beach's music, like so many other Romantic works, endured a period of neglect, which is being reversed by the efforts of committed singers and musicologists.
Neither the first nor the last American woman to write concert music, Amy Beach retains a certain cachet as the first to achieve serious acclaim both in this country and abroad. Considered in her day to be the equal of Paine, Parker, Chadwick, Foote, and the other members of the Second New England School, it may seem ironic that until recently her reputation has been kept alive largely through amateur societies and women's clubs. Yet one must consider the role that domestic music making had in shaping all of 19th-century American musical taste.
If one remembers that virtually every middle class American home had a piano; that a young lady's accomplishments were expected to include playing and singing; and that amateur music making (in which women played a dominant role) figured significantly in creating a public for professional classical music, then it is less surprising that Amy Beach, despite her formal training and professional achievements, remained connected to this tradition throughout her life and even after her death. Sometimes criticized for the sentimentality of her writing, like so many other composers of her day, Amy Beach was simply exploring her roots and her cultural context; she was a child of the great Romantic era which swept Europe and America, and she was also a student of that more intimate kind of romanticism--the sentiment born of hearth and home and the individual heart.
Beach assumed many leadership positions, often in advancing the cause of American women composers. She was associated with the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference. In 1925, she was a founding member and first president of the Society of American Women Composers. Following her death in 1944, Beach's royalties were given to the MacDowell Colony, as prescribed in her will.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
--Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Photo: Digital ID: cph 3b04622 Source: b&w film copy neg.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-56790 (b&w film copy neg.) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Photo: Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. Halftone. Illustrated in American Composers by Rupert Hughes and Arthur Elson. Boston: The Page Company, 1914, facing page 426. Music Division, Library of Congress. LC call number: ML390.H89 1914 Copy 3