Our concert at Nailsworth on Sunday 9th December includes the Quartet for Strings Op.89 by the Unites States’ foremost woman composer, Amy Beach.
Amy Marcy Cheney was born in 1867 into a distinguished New England family. Her father was a paper manufacturer, and her mother was a talented amateur singer and pianist. Amy showed extraordinary musical gifts: at the age of one she could sing 40 tunes accurately and always in the same key; by her second birthday she could improvise an alto line against her mother’s soprano melodies; at three she taught herself to read; and when she was four she was composing music in her head, ready to play as soon as she got to a piano, and could also play by ear any tunes she heard – including hymns in four-part harmony. Like some other gifted musicians, she experienced synaesthesia – associating musical keys with different colours. After lessons with her mother, seven-year-old Amy gave her first public piano recitals, and over the following years she went on to give many more performances, including playing concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Amy’s performing career was curtailed in 1885, aged 18, when she married the widower Dr Henry Beach, a 42-year-old physician who lectured at Harvard, who was also a keen amateur musician. In respect of her husband’s wishes, she only performed in public once a year, with any proceeds given to charity. Instead of performing, she was encouraged to focus on composition. She had only had a year of formal training in composition, during the year before her wedding, although she had been writing music since she was a small child. For the next ten years, she followed a course of independent study, based largely on the works and teachings of the great composers.
During this period she composed prolifically, including several large-scale works such as her Mass in E Op.5, the Piano Concerto Op.45, and her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony Op.32 – the first symphony to be written by an American woman. Almost all of her music was performed and published, with several of her many songs selling thousands of copies.
Henry Beach died in 1910, and Amy’s mother followed a few months later. The next year, Amy, on her 44th birthday, set sail for Europe, determined to establish a reputation there as both a composer and a performer. She gave many recitals around Germany, and several of her works were performed by orchestras in Hamburg, Leipzig and Berlin. The reviews were good: one critic described her as a composer with “a musical nature tinged with genius”. On the outbreak of war, Amy returned to the East Coast of the United States and continued composing prolifically, as well as performing, and getting involved in organisations promoting music education.
By the time of her death of heart disease in 1944, aged 77, Amy Beach had written over 300 compositions, including an opera, several orchestral works, chamber music, a long list of choral works both secular and sacred (she was deeply religious), and a great many piano pieces and songs. Her style shows a debt to the late Romantics, but also makes much use of folk music both from European settlers and from native American music. Her later works show an awareness of the stylistic changes going on during the first half of the twentieth century, with her most adventurous late works verging on atonality. Much of her music fell out of the repertoire after her death, but since the mid-1990s it has seen an increase in interest and popularity, and much of it can now be heard in concerts or recordings.
The Quartet for Strings was sketched out in 1921 at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony in New Hampshire of which Amy was a fellow, and was completed in the winter of 1928/9 during a visit to Rome. It was one of her rare unpublished works and was lost for many years, but was rediscovered and finally published in 1994. It consists of a single movement in three sections, and incorporates three Inuit melodies collected by the anthropologist Franz Boas in Alaska in the 1880s. The quartet displays Amy Beach’s mastery of counterpoint and innovative use of dissonance, and is perhaps one of her finest works, cleverly combining native folk themes to produce a truly original ‘American’ composition.