AMY BEACH (1867 - 1944)
Amy Beach was the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale musical works. The most frequently performed composer of her generation, she became famous in both the United States and Europe.
Amy Beach was born Amy Marcy Cheney, in West Henniker, New Hampshire, during an era when the world of work was divided into two spheres, the private and domestic for women, the public for men. Gifted with perfect pitch, total recall, inborn ability at the piano and in composition, she knew even as a young child that “no other life than that of a musician could ever have been possible for me”. Yet her parents said no to a professional career for Amy. With hard work and determination she succeeded, despite the limitations imposed by family and society. Her childhood and early teens were devoted to piano studies. Her first private recital at the age of seven earned her a review in a local paper. Her mother “allowed” her to make her début when she was sixteen. After hearing her play Moscheles’s Second Concerto with orchestra, a dozen reviewers predicted an outstanding career as a concert pianist. In 1885, when she made her début with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, critics called her playing of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto “perfect.”
Marriage at the age of eighteen to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, M.D., changed Amy Beach’s career path. Her husband, 25 years her senior, replaced her parents as authority figure. She agreed, after some resistance, to limit public performance to one annual recital. Composition, said Henry, was to be her métier: he even allowed her to publish her compositions, but under her new name, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Denied a teacher, she taught herself orchestration and composition, with remarkable success.
During 25 years of marriage, Amy Beach composed not only the symphony and the concerto but also songs, chamber, choral and solo piano music. Widowed at 43, she went to Germany to present her compositions and revive her career as a pianist, under the name Amy Beach. On her triumphant return to Boston in 1914, she devoted herself to concert tours and composition, completing the balance of her three hundred works, almost all published and performed. Long a hero to women composers, she died 1944 in New York City at the age of 77.
Adrienne Fried Block