Many of the women we feature on our Wednesday blog entries are chosen because they triumphed over fate’s challenges. The story of Amy Beach is different. The renowned composer’s success can said to have come in spite of having too much of a good life.
Amy Marcy Cheney was born on September 5, 1867 in Henniker, NH. She had fair hair and large blue eyes and, as a child, was said to be small for her age. Amy’s mother, aunt, and grandmother were all musically talented and Amy soon proved that she would surpass them all. By age 1, her mother wrote that she could hum 40 different tunes. She was extremely sensitive to sound and pitch. Loud noises frightened her and if her mother did not sing songs as Amy had first heard them, she fussed. Later, when she had learned to talk, she would admonish her mother to “sing it clean.”
Clara Cheney was a strict disciplinarian who intended that her daughter continue to love music but also grow up to be a proper young lady. She feared that if she pushed Amy too soon, she would tire of her gift. She did not allow the child to touch the piano. So Amy played the songs in her imagination, pounding her fingers on a table.
Clara’s sister, “Aunt Franc” as Amy called her, was not as strict. During a visit, she sat Amy on her lap and allowed the little girl to play. Amy played the songs she had heard her mother perform, leaving out certain notes her stubby fingers could not reach but still managing to create appropriate chords. Clara became her daughter’s piano teacher.
The Cheneys moved to Roxbury, MA, and Clara, feeling that she had taught Amy all she could, looked for a more advanced music teacher. In those days, wealthy musical talents went to Germany to study. Clara would have had to split up her family in order to accompany Amy to the continent. Also, studying in Europe would imply that Amy was preparing for a career in music. Proper young Boston ladies did not have careers. Instead, Clara did the next best thing and hired a piano teacher who had studied in Germany.
Amy formally debuted as a pianist in October, 1883 at the Boston Music Hall. For the next two years she performed solo concerts throughout the Boston area. Following an 1885 performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Amy was invited by conductor Wilhelm Gericke to attend any BSO rehearsals so she could study the scores. But Amy’s life took a slight detour.
In August, 1885, the Cheneys announced Amy’s engagement to widower Dr. H.H.A. Beach. He was a year older than her father. They married in December and Amy moved into the wealthy doctor’s Commonwealth Avenue home where servants handled household chores.
Amy ‘s husband allowed her to perform as long as she donated her honorariums to charity. By 1887, Amy’s concert schedule was deeply curtailed. She turned her attention to composition. She could not go out to study. It wouldn’t have been proper. Instead, she became self-taught.
Five years later, she performed her Mass publicly with the BSO and the Handel & Hayden Society. It was the first such composition presented by a woman composer in the United States. Amy was only 25 years old.
In 1893, at the Chicago Columbian Exposition (Chicago’s World Fair) Beach’s commissioned composition, Festival Jubilate, was performed at the grand opening of the Women’s Building. One year later, performances of her work by singers and orchestras outnumbered her own concerts.
Beach’s work was becoming popular all over the U.S. and Europe. Her Gaelic Symphony debuted on 1896. “All Beach” concerts were held and clubs were formed in her honor. Amy was not yet 30.
Amy’s husband died in 1910 and her mother one year later. The two had handled every aspect and decision of her life and career but now Amy insisted on taking over. After her mother’s death, Amy went to Germany.
She toured and studied in Europe until the beginning of World War I. By now, she did not consider herself a concert pianist but instead a composer who occasionally performed her own music and other standards in public.
She continued to play for charity and during the war auctioned some of her original manuscripts to benefit the Red Cross. She became friends with Edward & Marion MacDowell and spent summers at the MacDowell Colony. (See photo, left) She eventually sold her Commonwealth Avenue house and lived portions of each year in a Hillsboro, NH rental, a Cape Cod house, and the Colony.
In 1928, the University of NH awarded both she and Marion MacDowell honorary master’s degrees in music. (Evidently, women weren’t eligible for even “honorary” doctorates). The president of the college later apologized for the gaff.
Her brilliant Canticle of the Sun debuted in 1931 to rave reviews. The next 13 years would mark a slowing of Beach’s number of compositions, a decline in her health, and finally death in 1944. She had successfully worked around the rules set by her mother and husband, contributed large amounts to charity and the arts, and left the world richer for her compositions. The poor little rich girl had done well.
To listen to some of Beach’s work click on the links below: