In August 1916 the celebrated composer and concert pianist Amy Beach moved from San Francisco to her native New Hampshire. The 48-year-old had recently purchased a house in San Francisco near the residence of her two closest relatives, her 74-year-old aunt Emma Francis Marcy Clement, known as Franc, and her cousin, 42-year-old Ethel Clement. But then something unexplained happened in the Clement household, and Amy, Franc, and Ethel left the city together — while Franc’s husband Lyman Clement stayed behind. The three women traveled to Hillsborough, N.H., where they set up household.
Hillsborough was the hometown of Clara Marcy Cheney, Amy’s late mother, and her sister Franc. Amy had been born in the bordering town of Henniker, where she had spent the first four years of her life and then had lived in Chelsea and Boston, Mass. She found success in Boston’s vibrant music world.
In 1911, shortly after the deaths of her husband, Dr. H.H.A. Beach, and of Clara, Amy pursued her professional career in Europe, and in 1914 she returned to the U.S., where she maintained a busy concert schedule.
Amy enjoyed her new life in quiet Hillsborough where she could concentrate on composing music and on rehearsing for her concert engagements. Biographer Adrienne Fried Block wrote, “Beach entered into Hillsborough life as both a neighbor and the town’s greatest celebrity. In addition, she developed close relationships with relatives and friends in the area. She was soon touched by the devotion to her displayed by her fellow townspeople, who on occasion invested themselves in the performance of her music.”
In 1918 Amy reduced her tour schedule and stayed close to home where she dedicated her time to working with the Red Cross on war relief efforts. She remained in Hillsborough during the winter of 1919-1920 to care for her ailing cousin Ethel, who died in April 1920.
In 1921 Amy and two local music teachers established the “Beach Club” to provide music education to the children of Hillsborough. Amy mentored the students in music appreciation, and delighted them with stories from her life. Amy always assured that her dear Aunt Franc was well cared for, as she grew increasingly frail over the years. She died in November 1925.
From 1921 to 1941 Amy spent several weeks each summer as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. This artists’ retreat had been founded in 1907 by Amy’s friend, the pianist Marian MacDowell, and her husband pianist/composer Edward MacDowell. Life in the Colony offered the solitude and peace of the natural setting, balanced with the lively camaraderie of fellow creative spirits. This atmosphere motivated Amy to write many wonderful pieces. Always in love with birdsong, Amy was inspired to write two of her most popular piano pieces while staying at the colony, “The Hermit Thrush at Eve” and “The Hermit Thrush at Morning.” Also, she was encouraged by her exposure to the work of the younger composers (who called her “Aunt Amy”) to experiment with modern forms of music.
In 1924 Amy returned, for the first time in several years, to “The Pines,” the vacation home she had shared with her husband in Centerville on Cape Cod. She would return each summer after that for a sojourn. In 1928 she and Marian MacDowell received honorary Master of Arts degrees from the University of New Hampshire.
Amy spent the winter of 1928-1929 in Rome and, in 1930 she rented a studio apartment in a women’s residence in New York City, and dedicated herself to composing sacred music for St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, which had championed her sacred music for two decades. She also continued her recital tours, mentored young musicians and composers, and served on the boards of organizations that promoted music education.
In 1940 Amy was diagnosed with a heart condition, which forced her to retire, but she still maintained a busy social schedule and attended performances of her compositions. She died in New York City on Dec. 27, 1944 at age 77. She bequeathed the rights to her music to the MacDowell Colony.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach and her husband, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach are buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston.
Looking Back returns Sept.10 with a column on Marian and Edward MacDowell and the founding of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.