Thursday, March 31, 2011

BEACH, Amy Marcy Cheney Foremost Female Composer (c) By Polly Guerin

There are children who come into the world with a talent so extraordinary at such an early age that they are recognized as a child prodigy. Such is the amazing case of Amy Marcy Cheney, the American composer and pianist, who was immensely talented and largely self-taught. Imagine the wonder of it all. She was able to sing forty tunes accurately by age one and by age two she could improvise a countermelody to any melody her mother sang. As young as she was the seeds of determination to succeed took shape and later in life she developed a significant performing career. She taught herself to read at age three, began composing simple waltzes at the age of four and performed publicly at age seven. Many talented prodigies fizzle out when they mature but not Amy Marcy Cheney. She became the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music and composed copiously throughout her life. Amy March Cheney (Amy Beach) remains one of the foremost female composers of her time. THE FLEDGLING ARTIST Amy was born in Henniker, New Hampshire September 5, 1867 into a distinguished New England family that nurtured the precocious child’s talent. She began formal piano lessons with her mother at the age of six, and a year later started giving public recitals, playing works by Handel, Beethoven, Chopin and her own pieces. Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem,”The Rainy Day,” the young composer at thirteen wrote her first published song. She was immensely talented and largely self-taught and during her lifetime she composed over 100 songs including the Three Browning Songs, OP. 44. In particular the delightful song “The Year’s at the Spring” proved enduringly popular. FORMAL STUDIES With such a precocious child further musical training was paramount to her development. In 1875, Amy’s family moved to Boston, where they were advised to enter her into a European conservatory. Because her parents could not afford to send her abroad she received local training in Boston, but was primarily self-taught learning orchestration from a treatise by Berlioz and counterpoint by writing out figures from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Prepared as she was beyond her years, in 1883, at age sixteen, she made her professional debut as a pianist. Later she became a soloist with the Boston Sympathy Orchestra. BECOMING MRS. H.H.A.BEACH At eighteen, Amy could almost certainly have made a brilliant career merely as a concert pianist, but she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston physician who was 25 years her senior and from then on most of her compositions and performances, were under the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Much to his credit and influence he encouraged her to limit public appearances and concentrate instead on composition (she later returned to the platform following his death in 1910). Her first major success was the mass in E-flat major, which was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892. Finding inspiration in Romanticism and the European folk music tradition of her New England ancestors, she composed copiously including Gaelic Symphony in E Minor, OP. 32 in which she turned to the Celtic folk tradition which incorporates Irish melodies. It was the first symphony by an American composer to gather significant attention in Europe. Beach composed the Jubilate for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893. AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN After Dr. Beach’s death Mrs. Beach resumed her career as a performer, changed her professional name to Amy Beach and embarked on a three year tour of Europe. She returned to the United States in 1914 later moved to New York which she became the virtual composer-in-residence at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. She wrote most of her later works while visiting the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire including her two famous piano pieces, “The Hermit Thrush at Eve and “The Hermit Thrust at Morning.” When she died of heart failure in 1944, she left the rights to her music to the MacDowell Colony. Amy Beach’s output was prolific and covered all the major genres. Piano Concerto, OP. 45, for example, is a large-scale bravura masterpiece in the manner of contemporary late-Romantic concertos. Three of the four movements are based on material from Beach’s own songs. Amy Beach used her status as the pre-eminent American woman composer to further the careers of young musicians, serving as leader of several organizations, including the Society of American Women Composers as its first president. In Boston her name was added to the famous Hatch Shell and is the only woman composer on that granite wall. She received numerous honors and was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 24, 1999.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

HOLT, Winifred and Edith, LIGHTING THE WAY (c) by Polly Guerin

When you are the daughters of the renowned publisher, Henry Holt, the Misses Winifred and Edith Holt might just as well have carried on as any proper heiress was expected to and lead a life of social pleasure. However, the Holt sisters were of that fine breed of American women that break down barriers and forge ahead as women determined to succeed in making the world a better place for people without sight. In the 1900s the problem of helping the blind in New York City was long in waiting for an intelligent solution but no program had been established. The pioneering Holt sisters, however, take their rightful place as the founders who facilitated that solution. Their humble goal became the Lighthouse International, an organization recognized for its pioneering work in vision, rehabilitation services, education, research and advocacy which enabled people of all ages who are blind or partially sighted to lead independent and productive lives.
The custom of the day for taking the ‘grand tour’ was on the Holt sisters’ agenda. During a concert in Florence, Italy, Winifred noticed a group of blind school children in the audience who were evidently enthralled with the music. Intrigued by their participation she investigated further and discovered that a free ticket program enabled the children to attend the concert. Inspired by such a simple solution to bring pleasure to blind individuals when the Holt sister returned home they established the Lighthouse Free Ticket Bureau in 1903. Their single thought was that like the Florence ticket service they might relieve the somber lives of the blind by procuring tickets from entertainment managers or their own friend’s tickets for concerts and operas and theaters. The ticket service went on for some time, but the sisters also became increasingly aware of the world of adults who were blind and their greater purpose that was unfolding.
The Holt sisters pooled their resources and borrowed $400 from their dress allowances, which was a considerable sum at the time. The visionary sisters personally gave over their family brownstone at 44 East 78th to the work for the blind, installing clerks, stenographers, and other helpers for the larger work in their hands for all those in need. Their home became a hub of workers engaged in advancing the interests and education of the blind in many ways. In order to facilitate the program of training and educating the blind the sisters themselves studied the blind alphabet with blindfolded eyes in order to understand the difficulties of learning the various demands on blind persons to perform tasks. The blind men and women were given work to do and how to do it. Women were trained to create handcraft items. If a seamstress had lost her sight she was shown how to thread a needle and how to use a studded tape. The blind showed a remarkable ability with the typewriter and other pursuits, for which they are trained before they are gainfully employed. A workshop for blind men was established at 147 E. 42nd Street, where chairs were caned and brooms were made for house and factory use and other marketable items.
The Lighthouse organized the first census of people who were blind in New York State resulting in the astonishing number totaling nearly 10,000 cases. Furthering the sisters’ research, after many efforts, in 1904 a legislative commission was formed to investigate the conditions of the blind in New York State and an appropriation of $5,000 was secured from the State for the collecting of all the data concerning the blind. Miss Edith Holt was appointed chief to head up the commission for gathering this important information. Winifred Holt also participated in founding the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.
From this early seed, in 1906 the Lighthouse was officially incorporated as The New York Association for the Blind, Inc. Home teaching and instruction began, marking the first community-based direct service—the forerunner of today’s professional vision rehabilitation services. It was a fortuitous beginning and many programs were staffed by teachers who were blind. In 1907 Winifred Holt personally traveled to Albany to draft a bill making the use of a medical measure at birth mandatory to prevent “ophthalmia neonatorum.” She also established the first lay committee to address blindness prevention. In 1988 The Lighthouse Inc. became the Lighthouse International, in recognition of its global reach---and outreach---on behalf of 180 million people who are visually impaired worldwide.

Visit Learn more about The Lighthouse.