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Beach, Amy (1867-1944)

Amy Beach

born: 5 September 1867
died: 27 December 1944
country: USA

Amy Marcy Cheney—later famous as Amy Beach—was born on 5 September 1867, in Henniker, New Hampshire, a small mill town set on the Contoocook River. Her mother Clara Cheney was an austere Calvinist, but she was also a fine amateur pianist. Her reaction to Amy’s prodigious musicality was to ban her from playing the piano. It was the intervention of Amy’s aunt that enabled her to play the instrument and to give her earliest public performances. At the age of seven she gave a recital in the local Congregational church, recalling later that she was ‘allowed to play in a few concerts—I imagine the consent was unwilling’. Indeed it was, since following a move to Chelsea, Massachusetts (just across the Mystic River from Boston), her mother forbade any further public appearances, though Amy took lessons from leading Boston teachers, including Carl Baermann (a Liszt pupil), and for a year she studied harmony and counterpoint with the organist and composer Junius M Hill.

It was not until Amy was sixteen years of age that her mother finally permitted her daughter to make her official debut as a soloist, when she played Moscheles’s Piano Concerto No 3 in Boston. Audience and critics alike were exceptionally enthusiastic, and Amy herself wrote that with this performance ‘life was beginning’. In 1885 she was the soloist in the last concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra season. In December 1885 she married a successful Boston doctor, Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, and henceforth she was known as Mrs H H A Beach. Their marriage agreement (possibly at the behest of Amy’s mother) required that she conform to what Dr Beach considered the proper conduct of a society wife: there was to be no concert-giving, and she was not to teach the piano. He allowed her to give one recital a year provided there was no fee (the proceeds going to charity), and permitted occasional appearances as a soloist with orchestras. Once again, Amy Beach was thwarted in pursuing her vocation as a concert pianist, but at least she was able to devote herself to composition—something her husband genuinely encouraged. As Adrienne Fried Block put it: ‘Clara Cheney had succeeded in getting the genie back in the bottle. However, through his crucial support of her creative work, Henry Beach helped bring the genie back out in another form.’ (‘A “veritable autobiography”? Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 45’, Musical Quarterly, Summer 1994, p400). Apart from one year of study during her teens, Amy Beach was self-taught as a composer, but the quality and individuality of her work was quickly recognized. In 1896 the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, and Beach came to be accepted as one of the ‘Boston Six’ group of composers—along with George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine and Horatio Parker. After hearing the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, Chadwick wrote to Beach: ‘I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us, and as such you will have to be counted [as] one of the boys.’

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2017


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