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sleep in thy forest bed, Amy Beach

July 25, 2015

In 1915, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, wrote: “It seems impossible for woman to create a beauty that must come from the soul and encompass a comprehension of the supernatural beauty that is given to us through the master artist. True, America has Mrs Beach and France Cécile Chaminade… But we have not opera, concerto, symphony, oratorio, or string quartet from womankind. Their work is light and frothy… they have not produced anything that could even be called near great.” Clearly, Damrosch was not a writer of felicitous style or penetrating insight but, despite the outburst, he was actually a prominent contemporary interpreter of Mrs H. H. A. Beach’s music, and we may at least appreciate the candour with which he recorded a sentiment that tacitly persists in some quarters to this day, and for sparking a debate at the time that ignited a wider interest in art by women.

Amy Marcy Cheney was, by all accounts, a precocious child. Able to sing forty songs by her first birthday, she was composing waltzes by the age of four and made her first concert appearance at seven, upon which she was immediately approached by managers and agents offering representation to an American prodigy. Once she had relocated with her parents from rural New Hampshire to Boston, her entrée into the wider world of America’s second capital of culture was made smoother, so that by the time of her official debut at sixteen she had already attracted a group of influential admirers (such as the poets Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes) who followed and supported the growth of her talent. Her gifts were such that, had she been a boy, she would certainly have travelled to Europe for further studies in piano and composition, but this was not condoned by her father, with the result that she was partly self-taught in the former and almost entirely in the latter. At eighteen, she married the illustrious surgeon Henry Beach, a widower 24 years her senior, who required of his young wife that she must not pursue a professional career, and that her appearances should be limited to one or two benefit concerts per year, with the proceeds donated to charity, thereby preserving the decorum Henry wished to maintain. The marriage seemed to have been happy, nevertheless, and the couple lived luxuriously in Henry’s mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. A year after becoming widowed, however, she sailed for Europe on her forty-fourth birthday and embarked on a three-year international tour that quickly established her as one of the leading American musicians of the day. Ironically, she was thus earning the money she discovered she needed to pay off the substantial debts accrued by Henry without her knowledge.

Returning to Boston in 1913, she became involved with the MacDowell Colony, a venture devoted to supporting the development of fellow American artists, established by the most famous local composer of the time, Edward MacDowell (1860—1908). It had been his ‘Indian’ Suite op.48 for orchestra (1892), which Amy admired, which seems to have sparked her interest in adapting native American musical materials in her works twenty years earlier, at a time when nationalist movements in music were prompting exploration and preservation of folk songs and folklore. Following her visit to the World Colombian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, her attention began to turn to questions of musical provenance, and she began expressing, in her writings as well as her music, concern for answers to the question: what is American music? It was also in 1893 that Dvorak, then living in the United States, premiered his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’, publicly declaring that the future of American music lay in its folk heritage. Beach responded with the first of her ‘Indianist’ works, ‘An Indian Lullaby’, a four-part song for women’s chorus, written in 1895. The anonymous author of the text

Sleep in thy forest bed

Where silent falls the tread

On the needles soft and deep

Of the pine

may well have been Amy herself. Although there are no folk or indigenous melodies included in the song, the intention to evoke an impression of native life is beautifully rendered in a gently wistful, romanticised way. Soon, she was acquiring a knowledge of authentic native musics and incorporating themes and stylistic traits in her own works. Probably the best known of these remains her suite ‘Eskimos’ op.64, which borrows Eskimo tunes collected in Labrador.

So it was that, when she received a commission from the San Francisco Quintet Club in 1915, she turned to ‘An Indian Lullaby’ for a theme. Following on from her most famous work, the impressively sumptuous piano quintet of 1907, she employed skills honed in her grand piano concerto (1899) and ‘Gaelic’ Symphony (1894) in gracefully idiomatic string writing that at once effectively provides an evocative setting for the solo flute and richly expands and decorates the original song. In a series of six variations, she gifted the original interpreter, flautist Elias Hecht, with an elegantly virtuosic vehicle laden with brilliant passage work and fine cantilena melodies, with plenty of characteristic late nineteenth century vignettes, so favoured in the salons of Europe.

From the elegiac opening address by the strings to the haunting coda, a panorama of descriptive character sketches leads us from quicksilver Mendelssohnian scherzi to a heartfelt Wagnerian largo, with a languorous fin de siècle waltz and an intriguing, nostalgic glance backwards by way of recapitulation. “The theme, haunting and beautiful, had seven (sic) variations, each one exquisite in form. Technically, they were worthy the mettle (sic) of these star men,”wrote the Musical Leader after the premiere, and the piece has remained a favourite with American flute players ever since. Nevertheless, it took until 1942 for it to receive its East Coast premiere, during celebrations for her 75th birthday in Washington DC.

For the rest of her life, Mrs H. H. A. Beach, as she continued to be known professionally, became a fixture of the Boston and New York musical scenes, widely respected as a pianist and always popular as a composer, surviving the gentle and gradual eclipse of all artists born of her era, as the ructions and modernities of the post World War I period proceeded apace. Unlike Mr Damrosch, however, her music has never left the American canon, and only gains greater international recognition as the years have passed since her death in 1944. The Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet is one of her finest chamber works, rarely heard in Australia, and will be given its first performance in the Australia Ensemble lunch hour series on Tuesday 11 August in the Leighton Hall, Scientia Building, University of NSW, 1.10pm.

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