Timeline: Amy Beach
Originally aired - August 29, 2016
In the 19th century, composition was a man’s world. The stigma of being a female composer made it difficult for a woman’s work to be read or heard. One woman helped to break through this glass ceiling and pave the way for a generation of female composers, her name was Amy Beach.
Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire. Her mother was a talented pianist and singer and her first teacher. To call Amy a prodigy is an understatement of her immense musical talents. When she was one year old she could already sing songs, at two she could harmonize and at five she began composing original pieces. When she was seven, the family moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts. Many suggested that Amy study music in Europe, but the family opted to keep her training local. In fact, she became the first major American composer to be trained exclusively in America.
Amy made her public performance debut when she was 16, but her career was halted when she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885, 24 years her senior. Her husband limited her performance schedule and was not supportive of her composition lessons. So Amy sought out every text on theory, composition and orchestration that she could find. She even translated the works of Hector Berlioz and other French masters into English herself.
Her compositions caught the attention of the musical establishment. She became the youngest member of the 2nd New England school of composers, sometimes called the Boston Six. Her Gaelic Symphony and Mass in Eb broke new ground for female composers.
In 1910, Amy’s husband passed away and a few months later her mother as well. Amy traveled to Europe where she grieved for almost a year. Eventually, she adopted the name Amy Beach and slowly began to perform again.
During her marriage, Amy had vowed to never teach music. Now as a widow, she was free to do exactly that. She became a beloved professor and helped to influence many other younger composers. Her article “To the Girl Who Wants to Compose” has been an inspiration for close to a century.
After her death in 1944, Amy Beach’s music was all but forgotten. However, there has been a revival in the past few decades. In 2000, the Boston Pops added her name to their Hatch Shell as the only female among 87 composers.
Learn more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.