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.

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