Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) is the only woman composer in my collection. For some reason, women have not been considered composers of classical music. Even today, when symphonic music is written for movies, the composers seem to be predominately men. I ran across one of her recordings at a big box book/CD/DVD store, part of the American Classics series from recording label Naxos.

Reading from the DK Eyewitness Companions book entitled Classical Music, I find that she was quite the pianist. Having been listening to her Piano Concerto Op. 45, I'm remind of her contemporary pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninov. In some ways the virtuosic playing distracts from the more lyrical themes, as in Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. According to the DK book, she could have made a living as a concert pianist, but her husband preferred that she stay home and compose. Her composition skills were self taught, reading Berlioz and copying out fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

DK also states that her key works were as follows: Gaelic Symphony, Op. 32; Piano Concerto, Op. 45; and Three Browning Songs, Op. 44. The Naxos recording I have includes the first two of these.

The first work, a piano concerto in C sharp minor, has some exciting passages, not the least of which when the piano first bursts from the first movement. There follows a series of rapid up-and-down-the-keyboard playing while the orchestra accompanies. The third movement, Largo, is where the listener will find the more lyric, beautiful music.

The second work, the so-called Gaelic Symphony in E minor (Op. 32), takes themes from Celtic folk music to weave a wonderful orchestral masterpiece. Written between 1894 and 1896, it premiered with the Boston Orchestra in 1896. The symphony, with its Celtic themes (and original themes that sound Irish), established Beach as the first woman composer of major orchestral works in the United States. It was with this symphony as well that she turned the attention of European to American music in general, and her work in particular.

A search for Beach's music on Amazon.com returns 111 entries, including solo piano, songs, sacred music, and chamber music.

Though not well known, she was a prolific composer. Many of her works can be found on modern recordings.


(Next comes Beethoven, and I will be starting with his symphonies. Along with concentrated listening, I will also be following Robert Greenberg's course Symphonies of Beethoven. I also have the course Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, also by Greenberg, which covers all 32 of those compositions. When I get to those, I will be following Greenberg as well.)

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