Words About Music 2021 Program Notes
Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor
Adagio – Allegro moderato
Allegro agitato – Adagio come prima – Presto
By Emily Dodd
Amy Beach paved the way for female composers. Perhaps her greatest public success as a composer came with the premiere of the Gaelic Symphony, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896. This was the first performance of a symphony by an American woman. Her emergence as a pioneer of female composition was a blessing and a curse; her fame spread easily but contributed to the notion that she was an aberration amongst composers, that being a woman was a token or a gimmick and not representative of the ability of women in general.
As was common for a woman of her era, Beach was largely defined and controlled by her marriage. After a childhood as a piano prodigy with a busy performance schedule, the 18-year-old Amy Cheney married the 42-year-old surgeon Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in December 1885. The marriage came with a number of restrictions on her musical activity: she agreed to never teach piano and to severely limit her performances, giving just one solo public recital a year. All money from her performances was to be donated to charity, as her husband did not believe that Amy should contribute to the household earnings. She was allowed to compose, however, a pursuit that was considered private and appropriate to the expectation that a wife should remain at home. She later commented on this change in career direction: ‘Though I had not deliberately chosen, the work had chosen me. I continued to play in concerts, but my home life kept me in the neighbourhood of Boston. My compositions gave me a larger field. From Boston, I could reach out to the world.’
The lack of autonomy and independence for Amy probably saved her from some unsavoury aspects of criticism and afforded her a life of support, both financial and personal, but stifled any notion of a performing career. She was not reliant on composing as an income and so she was less concerned about criticism from the musical fraternity, able to compose what she wanted without financial expectations. Amy was restricted in contact with other musicians, with Henry often being the only person to critique her compositions. The control exercised over Amy’s life and performing career did not change much from childhood to adulthood; it was as if her husband took on the role of parent and guardian as soon as the marriage vows were exchanged. Changing her name from Amy Marcy Cheney to Mrs. H. H. A. Beach surely impacted on the build-up of her reputation as a pianist, as did her premature semi-retirement from performing. Her newfound freedom after the death of her husband in 1910 led her out of Boston and to Germany, where she lived until the outbreak of World War I. At last, she was able to embark on the performing career she wanted. It is easy to judge the actions of her husband by today’s standards; he was a product of his time and generation, as was Amy, and his actions would have been considered appropriate for a husband at the turn of the 20th century.
Beach herself was soloist in the first performance of the Piano Quintet, in Boston’s Potter Hall, in February, 1908. It is almost certainly inspired by Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, which Beach had performed just prior to composing this, her only Piano Quintet.
The first movement begins eerily, with a slow and sinister string chord and piano arpeggios. The movement then continues with the violin presenting the first Brahms-inspired theme, before the piano takes over. However much Brahms inspired the Quintet, it is clearly the individual work of Amy Beach. We hear Beach’s voice from the first few bars, as those unexpected piano arpeggios emerge. As the piano writing becomes more elaborate, the strings become increasingly dramatic and extroverted; this opening movement delivers agony and exultation.
The second movement is in D-flat Major, taking us a long way from the F-sharp minor of the first movement and providing a dramatically different colour and mood. The Adagio espressivo begins sweetly with a sustained string chorale; the piano then emerges gently to borrow and develop the theme. The movement snaps out of its opening dream-like state in the central section, with a climax that plays like a lover’s quarrel between the strings and piano, before settling back down for a tranquil, lullaby-like ending.
The finale begins in a frenzy, an agitated counterpart to the reveries of the Adagio Espressivo. The movement starts with a lengthy introduction before the violin presents the first theme; the viola continues with a slower, more lyrical second melody. After a build-up of tremolos, the first theme is referenced again as the beginning of the Quintet is reprised. After a passage of lyrical intensity, reminiscent of the second movement, the frenzied atmosphere returns, and builds up to two final F-sharp major chords, a triumphant and optimistic end to a rollercoaster of passion.
The Quintet’s contrasting, clear-cut sections, and subtle play of dynamics, keys, and tempos, all contribute to a composition with its heart on its sleeve. As listeners, we have no doubt of Beach’s intentions: sombre passages are contrasted with energetic, frenzied outbursts, in music that is above all else, passionate.
By Sophie Funston
Have you ever heard a chamber work that has such a rich texture that it feels like there should be more than five musicians playing, yet is still captivatingly intimate?
This duality is present in much of Amy Beach’s chamber music, including this Piano Quintet of 1905. Beach composed some 300 works across many different genres – sacred choral music, chamber music, songs, and symphonic works. It was bold for female composers in the 19th Century to write large-scale works, and the 1896 premiere of Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was met with such acclaim that Beach was subsequently recognised as one of America’s most noted composers.
You might imagine hearing the opening of this Quintet on the soundtrack of a classic thriller film. A sinister drone in the upper strings is followed by a series of jarring, rolled chords in the piano. This gradually evolves into something sonorous, and quite sweet. A violinist breaks away from the unison strings texture with a flowing melody over bubbling notes from the piano, which is followed by glimpses of individual violin, cello, or piano voices dancing alone for a time, before they join back into the full texture. Finally, we return to the longing opening theme, but this time it features the lower register of the strings, and descends gravely to the end.
Beach was a self-taught musician: from books and scores, she learned to sing, read, and write music as a child. Her piano recitals were popular in her hometown of Boston, and critically acclaimed nationally and, in her time spent not practicing or touring, Beach was a sought-after piano teacher. A young male pianist of Beach’s talent might have travelled to Europe, where the latest piano technique was taught; however, this was forbidden by her family and later her husband. Instead, she studied piano technique out of books from Europe.
But Beach’s music doesn’t sound like something she learnt out of a textbook, and her individual composing style shines throughout the Quintet. It is clear she knows how to elicit the full spectrum of colours from the piano and the string instruments. For instance, the second movement explores how the use of mutes on the stringed instruments can create an atmosphere of introspection and memory and, complementing this, Beach has given a direction to the pianist to play as sweetly as possible (dolcissimo). This expressive piano line wanders on its own, sometimes interacting with the individual string voices, and buffeted by a pulsing rhythmic pattern in the middle strings. This movement ends with the same themes with which it began, though this time with all four string voices passing the melody to each other.
The frenetic opening to the final movement uses scurrying scales in contrast with the muted strings of a few moments ago. Then, the texture suddenly thins out to create an evocative, ghost-like echo between violin and piano, in what might be the Quintet’s most breathtaking moment. A reprise of the opening suggests Beach’s expressions of inner turmoil and longing, found in melodies throughout the piece, may also characterise the ending, but the mood shifts in the final bars. The quintet finishes with everyone in unison, and the feeling that a kind of light has prevailed.
In spite of the strength and sincerity of her unique compositional voice, Beach often felt that performing was her first calling. She was both supported and restricted in her marriage, with her husband controlling how many public recitals she was to give each year, and strongly encouraging her to put aside her piano teaching and performing to pursue composition. Beach wrote for a magazine: ‘I thought I was a pianist first and foremost’, but then also describes how her husband was her greatest support in encouraging her to pursue composition.
This lack of control over her career was the norm for women of Beach’s status, and she is recognised as a pioneer today for her passionate involvement in several organisations which supported female composers. If an increase in prominence of compositions by women in today’s Western musical canon means that we are able to hear more music by this hardworking and determined musician today, we will be the better for it.
By Claire Litwinowicz
While Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (or Mrs. H.H.A Beach as she preferred) may not be a household name in classical music, her talents mirror those of previous pianist/composers, including Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. Unlike Liszt and Chopin however, Amy Beach was, as one critic described her, ‘but yet a woman’. Despite the setbacks that accompanied her gender, Beach made history when her Gaelic Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, became the first female-composed symphony performed by a major American orchestra. This is even more meaningful when you consider that women were barred from playing in orchestras at the time of the piece’s premiere in 1896. Beach has since earned a reputation as a trailblazer, as an advocate for her own and other womens’ work at the time.
As a baby, Amy was quickly drawn to music and was composing and improvising at the piano by the age of four. Noticing her daughter’s astonishing talent, Clara Cheney kept surprisingly strict control over Amy’s musical education, hoping that this would lead to a more stable and appropriate life for her as a wife and mother. Sometimes Clara would even limit or completely disallow Amy’s time spent at the piano, as a form of punishment. To avoid her daughter being led in the ‘wrong’ direction, Clara prevented Amy from performing publicly or studying in Europe, as many young prodigies would have done at the time. Eventually, Amy was allowed to make her debut as a concert soloist at 16 before going on to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a year later.
The pianist’s marriage to Henry Beach (H.H.A Beach) in 1885 led her out of the frying pan and into the fire. While she was free of her mother’s control over her career, her marriage agreement specified that she give up performing for a more domesticated life. Beach did not let this diminish her musical output, and brought her creative energies to composing. She studied masters like Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz, and collected an exhaustive library of resources, becoming in effect a self-taught composer. Not surprisingly, this was the most fruitful compositional period of her life, one in which she produced many of her well-known works. These included the Gaelic Symphony and the work you’ll hear tonight, the Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor.
Mrs. Beach performed the piano part herself in the Quintet’s premiere in 1908, which marks one of many occasions in which Beach’s compositional and performance worlds met in synergy. In the dawning moments of the piece, Beach evokes feelings of resolution, nostalgia and foreboding through a series of piano arpeggios. These ever-changing moods are characteristic of Amy’s heavily romantic writing style and foreshadow the entire piece, in which she explores an array of colours and musical landscapes. Following the stormy first movement, the Adagio espressivo emerges from the mist and lulls you into a trance-like state. In one of the few moments without piano, it is here that the piece breathes a sigh of relief and allows the warm, hushed strings to shine. This dreamy second movement encounters a series of twists and turns along its path and, unlike the other movements, gives the piano the more modest role of shimmering accompanist. The exciting third movement – marked Allegro Agitato – fluctuates between moments of musical intimacy, like an extensive solo for the violist, and grand exclamations from the whole ensemble. Listen out for Beach’s reminiscence of the Quintet’s opening, which she revisits before leading the instruments to one final flourish.
It is no surprise that Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet has survived the test of time, as it showcases her developed compositional style and inherent musicality, as well as the ability of the piano quintet, as a genre, to be both symphonic and intimate in nature. It is these distinctive features that have led many scholars and performers to compare the Quintet to those of Dvořák, Schumann and Brahms. Despite the setbacks that Beach faced during her lifetime, her clearly exceptional skill and relentless passion virtually destined her music and music-making to be shared with the world. As Amy described music herself: ‘The work had chosen me’.
By Krista Tanuwibawa
When you look up lists of the most popular American classical concert composers, you’re likely to find the names Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland. Perhaps you might even find European expatriates like Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, who found home in the Land of the Free in the upheaval of the second world war. Often forgotten is Amy Beach – one of America’s pioneering composers and lauded as the first successful American woman composer.
A retrospective view of Amy Beach’s life revealss a fascinating story of a female musician living and working parallel to the women’s suffrage movement. Born in New Hampshire, Beach grew up as a musical prodigy with perfect pitch and synaesthesia – a condition where she heard colours. Beach started performing publicly on the piano at six and was a published composer by age 16. Despite her talent, her mother was cautious of allowing her time on the piano as she believed that indulging the child’s wishes would breach her parental authority. At age 18, it was an obligation of her marriage to Dr H. H. A. Beach (a man 24 years her senior) that her performances were limited to once-a-year charity concerts, and that she would not study composition under formal tutelage. Yet Beach continued to master her craft independently; her composition skills were primarily self-taught.
Conforming to social norms of womanhood was not a deterrent to her creative output. Beach thrived as a musician and was highly regarded in her own time. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed her Gaelic Symphony, she became the first female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. At the height of the women’s suffrage movement, she was an emblem for women’s rights in America and a national symbol of women’s creative power. Beach said: ‘I have no special views at all about the success or non-success of women in any field’, and justly so – the merit of Beach’s music transcends pre-existing social boundaries.
Much of Beach’s music was written for chamber ensembles, and the Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor has become one of her most frequently performed instrumental pieces. It’s one that traces her compositional influence from Brahms. In fact, its primary theme is borrowed and re-worked from the final movement of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, a piece that Beach was known to have performed herself.
The melodic ideas inspired by Brahms present themselves as soon as the opening bars. The first movement begins with a powerful statement on the piano, gliding swiftly and chromatically across octaves; it expands with the application of the sustain pedal. The strings often play together in time, producing a rich echo from which the piano floats, setting a welcome entrance for a melodious, sough second theme. Beach makes full use of the piano’s range and dynamic capacity here, and throughout the entire piece. The use of chromaticism adds a magnificent colour and sparkle to the music.
Beach leans further into Romantic expressiveness in the second lyrical and dream-like movement, its main melody drifting between each instrument. At each iteration it seems to yearn for something greater than itself, reminiscent of a Chopin nocturne. Note how the tensions in dynamics, tempo, and even the articulation of notes and chords tug at your emotions. It’s as if each instrument is singing passionately, ultimately converging together in a climactic chorale.
The primary ‘Brahms’ theme returns in the third movement and is once again exchanged between the piano and strings, though this time it goes through a new transformation. After an exciting crescendo, the ensemble descends into a folk-like variation accompanied by persistent tremolo murmurs, then the piano walks with heavy steps into another episode of sweeping melody. After a gentle lull comes the most fascinating part of the piece. The music surges rapidly and gradually modulates into the major key, ending in a punchy and sanguine final cadence.
Beach makes use of the piano quintet, as a medium, to great effect. This work showcases the grand breadth and dynamism of what a piano can achieve against the intensity and texture of a string quartet. She also worked brilliantly within the confines of the traditional three-movement sonata-allegro form – another signature quirk adopted from Brahms. While staying true to a conservative form, Beach paints her work with animated melodies, tonal colour and harmonic language that became a marker for the late Romantic style.
Perhaps you could say Beach’s method was reflective of her own musical life: staying inside the lines but colouring vividly within them.