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Amy Beach (1867-1944): Songs
Born Amy Marcy Cheney in Henniker, New Hampshire, Beach was
one of America’s most prolific and successful composers. She was also one of
the first women whose musical compositions were as highly regarded as those
produced by men. While she composed works in almost every genre, she was best
known during her lifetime for her well-crafted songs and short piano pieces,
many of which were an important part of the standard recital repertoire of the
time. After beginning a concert career as a pianist at the age of sixteen, she
temporarily ended her performing aspirations at eighteen when she married the
Boston surgeon Dr Henry Harris Aubrey Beach (1843-1910). Her married years were
her most prolific period of compositional activity.
Following the deaths of her husband and mother in 1910 and
1911, Beach sailed to Europe, where she expanded her reputation as a performer
and composer. She gave concerts
throughout Germany, performing many of her instrumental works and introducing
some of her songs to German audiences.
Beach returned to the United States in 1914, making New York
City her home. She spent each concert season performing and promoting her works
throughout North America. Beginning in 1921, she did most of her composing in
the summer as a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in
Peterborough, New Hampshire. Her active membership at Saint Bartholomew’s
Episcopal Church in New York City inspired her to compose sacred music.
Highly intelligent, Beach incorporated her varied interests
and experiences into her compositions. Largely self-taught in composition, she
was the first American woman musician to receive all of her training in the
United States and to write in the larger forms. Her work has always been
evaluated by critics on the basis of its merit and her intellect, while her
talent for composition has consistently been acknowledged. She is a
transitional figure between the composers of the Second New England School,
which includes Horatio Parker and Edward MacDowell, and later American song
composers such as Charles Ives. In contrast to other American composers of the
time, Beach achieved recognition in both the United States and abroad.
Beach’s 117 art songs show skillful craftsmanship and
profound understanding of text. She composed in a late-Romantic idiom
throughout her life, often patterning her songs after works by European
composers. She also experimented with musical styles as diverse as Scottish
folk-songs and African-American spirituals. Her songs are of a very high
technical and musical merit, intended to be sung by trained musicians. Many of
them were dedicated to prominent singers, who performed them and used them in
teaching. She believed that a good song is an inspired, creative, musical
response to a text, which incorporates both intellect and emotion. The poetry
that she set to music reflected the dominant artistic current of the time, in
which art was seen as an expression of the highest idealism. Her eclectic taste
in poetry can be seen in the wide range of authors whose texts she set. The
pianist’s rôle in Beach’s songs is as important as that of the singer. The
accompaniments are technically demanding. Beach had absolute pitch and
experienced synaesthesia (seeing colours when hearing musical pitches), factors
which contributed to her selection of keys for her songs.
Even at the age of twelve Beach borrowed ideas from
established composers and used them as models for her own works. The first
theme of the third movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata appears in
The Rainy Day.
Ariette, dedicated to Dr Beach, was one her first songs to
achieve popularity. The texts for When far from Her and Empress of Night come
from a collection of poems published by Dr Beach. Amy Beach later used the
melody of Empress of Night, in her piano concerto. She incorporated Le Secret
into another piano work, Les rêves de Colombine.
Ecstasy proved so popular that the poem was included in The
Poetry Digest: Annual Anthology of Verse for 1939. Beach earned enough from the
royalties of Ecstasy to buy a lot on Cape Cod for a summer home. The poem for
Within thy Heart is also by Beach. The poem, Sleep, Little Darling, originally
appeared in Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
Nacht is representative of Beach’s songs in French and
German, which show her mastery of text setting in these languages and her
understanding of trends in contemporary European music.
The young poet of Forgotten, Cora Randall Fabbri, was
considered one of the most remarkable literary talents of her day. She suffered
an untimely death at the age of twenty.
The Scottish texts of Dearie and Far Awa’, are set with
musical devices commonly found in folk-music, dotted rhythms, simple chordal
accompaniments, and frequent changes from major to minor mode.
The Three Browning Songs, Op.44, commissioned by the
Browning Society of Boston, have proven to be Beach’s most popular and enduring
songs. The Year’s at the Spring was a staple of vocal recital repertoire in the
early twentieth century. Often, the audiences’ enthusiastic response caused it to
be repeated several times.
Come, ah Come is part of Four Songs for Mezzo-Soprano or
Baritone, the first group of songs that Beach composed for lower voices.
Canzonetta, Ich sagte nicht, Wir drei, Juni, and Je demande
à l’oiseau were modelled after songs by Richard Strauss and Jules Massenet.
Beach found the poems for several of these songs in magazines, as she did with
Go not too far, which originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Van resembles a Scottish folk-song. The accompaniment mimics the sound of a
bagpipe. The text comes from William Black’s novel, Yolande.
As her friends became mothers, Beach was inspired to compose
lullabies. The song Baby was composed for Woman’s Home Companion magazine.
Hush, Baby Dear was dedicated to its poet and her husband, in honour of their
child, Beach’s godson.
A Prelude shares similarities with her other settings of Dr
Beach’s poems. The refrain of O Sweet Content, is Beach’s vocal writing at its
Ein altes Gebet is patterned after a song by Hugo Wolf. The
piano accompaniment introduces a motive that foreshadows figures of an
impressionistic character that Beach used in her piano accompaniments in later
The Opus 73 songs, including Der Totenkranz, are settings of
texts dealing with aspects of motherhood, dedicated to the contralto Ernestine
Beach’s most uncharacteristic and humorous compositions, The
Candy Lion and A Thanksgiving Fable, were composed for the American singer and
actress Kitty Cheatham, known for her concerts of folk-music and children’s
In the Twilight was composed for the mezzo-soprano Emma
Roberts to sing at the Buffalo Festival in 1921. The poem’s descriptive text
allowed Beach to include colourful word-painting. This song’s dramatic ending
is unique among Beach’s œuvre.
The Host shows Beach’s tendency in later years toward
shorter, more compact compositions. The Mississippi author Muna Lee was a
Fellow at the MacDowell Colony with Beach in 1924.
May Flowers was composed at the request of the
mezzo-soprano, Lillian Buxbaum. I Sought the Lord and Though I Take the Wings
of Morning, were dedicated to the soprano Ruth Shaffner. The text of I Sought
the Lord came from the 1916 Episcopal hymnal. With its alternating major and
minor chords, the paraphrase of Psalm 139, Though I Take the Wings of Morning,
shows the influence of jazz. It is an interesting and poignant coincidence that
the final words of this, considered to be Beach’s last musical composition are,
“bid me then, be still.”