Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Music opens doors for prodigy Amy Beach

Undated studio photograph of Dr. H.H.A. Beach and Amy Beach.

AFTER SPENDING the first four years of her life in Henniker, the musical prodigy Amy Marcy Cheney was blessed with ample opportunities to develop her latent skills after she and her parents moved to Chelsea, Mass., in 1871, then to Boston in 1875. Here, guided by her mother Clara, a pianist and singer, she enjoyed concerts of classical music, and studied under two of Boston’s premier pianists and teachers. She also spent a year learning the basics of musical composition from an eminent professor.

Such were Amy’s abilities that Clara and her husband Charles Cheney considered whether or not it would be possible for their daughter to study in Europe. An intense period of study on the continent was considered a necessity for any person who wished to pursue a career in classical music. They rejected the idea, likely due to the great expense, and because Clara would need to accompany Amy in Europe for a stay of months or years.

Amy was home-schooled by her mother except for three years, beginning at around age 12, when she attended a private school near her home in Boston. By 1883, when she was 16, Amy was eager to embark on a career in music. She published her first composition that year, and on Oct. 24, 1883, she made her concert debut in the Music Hall in Boston, when she played two difficult piano solos.

On Jan. 9, 1884, Amy gave her first solo recital in Chickering Hall in Boston. These well-received performances launched a busy two-year period where she lived out her dream of being a concert pianist. The highlight of this happy period came on March 28, 1885, with Amy’s performance of a Chopin concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Amy’s life changed on Dec. 2, 1885, when she married a wealthy Boston surgeon, Dr. H.H.A. (Henry Harris Aubrey) Beach. He was a 42-year-old widower, and she was just 18. This was a time when women were expected to accept the demands of their husbands. Dr. Beach required that Amy restrict her public performances to one solo recital a year, and she was not allowed to teach music. Although he encouraged her to compose music, she was not permitted to study under other composers.

Despite these restrictions, during the next 25 years Amy managed to create beautiful music. She developed a solid reputation in the music world under her professional name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, publishing many works that were performed by other musicians. In addition to her yearly recitals, she was also able to appear on occasion as a featured performer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with the Kniesel String Quartet. This allowed her to premiere some of her own piano works in front of appreciative audiences.

Among Amy Beach’s compositional triumphs was her Mass in E-flat major which was performed by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 1892, which included orchestral, organ, and vocal music. Amy was commissioned to write the Festival Jubilate, an orchestral piece that was played at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

On Nov. 1, 1896, the Boston Symphony premiered what would become Amy Beach’s most famous composition, her Symphony in E-Minor — a complex and nuanced piece inspired by traditional Irish, Scottish, and English tunes. This was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. Though some critics at the time found fault in one or another aspect of the work, the audiences loved it, and reviews were positive overall. The “Gaelic” Symphony, as it became known, firmly established Amy Beach as one of the country’s top composers.

In 1904 Amy wrote a long solo piano work titled “Variations on Balkan Themes,” which drew from the folk music of Serbia and other countries of the Balkan peninsula. She premiered the piece herself on Feb. 8, 1905, at Huntington Chambers Hall in Boston. Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach’s biographer, describes the Variations as being “by turns, a lament … a slow bittersweet waltz, and a funeral march that rises to a dramatic climax.”

This evocative composition, which expresses the suffering of the people of the Balkan region in 1904-1905 due to political upheaval, remains an admired recital piece.

Next week: Amy Beach maintains her New Hampshire connections.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.