Music Feature: Celebrating Renowned Pen Woman Amy Beach

By Margaret Mills, Greenwich Branch

Margaret Mills

Margaret Mills

By chance some years ago, an older mentor friend of mine made a comment that captured my attention. She suggested I honor American women composers on an upcoming program I was giving at a major hall in New York. The thought of honoring women composers had never occurred to me and, indeed, I did not know any such composers. Then began a very important stage in my musical life and performing career. I went on a search and found excellent piano music by women and have been performing and recording these works ever since.

I discovered Amy Beach while going through music at the Juilliard Book Store. Up popped Beach’s “Five Improvisations,” which I bought and have been performing for years and recently recorded.

This fall, we are celebrating the 150th birthday of this renowned American composer and Pen Woman. My recently issued recording, “A Celebration of Early American Composers: Beach-Crawford-Ives,” has been one way of my celebrating her 150 years. She has pride of place on this recording, with her music at the beginning and at the end of the CD. 

This year, I also gave an all-Beach program in New York, performing besides her solo piano works some of her songs with an excellent mezzo-soprano, and playing her brilliant piano trio. I have found her chamber works to be quite extraordinary and have performed both her piano trio and her piano quintet. In all her music, I hear a very special sound, all her own. Since she was not allowed to study composition, she taught herself and developed her own style, which is like no one else I have heard or played.

Celebrating Amy Beach invites one to look back at the Victorian era, into which she was born, as Amy Marcy Cheney. Although her birthplace was Henniker, New Hampshire, she spent most of her youth in Boston, where she had every opportunity to hear the best artists coming through the city. 

Her great talent was recognized early on, but she was discouraged by her family to make a career in music. Known in her early days as a piano prodigy, young Amy was also a prolific composer turning out tunes and songs that she had organized in her head before putting to paper.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach, date unknown.
Library of Congress photo

She made her Boston debut at age 16 to great acclaim. A few years later, she married Dr. H. H. A. Beach, a socially prominent surgeon in Boston, who asked her to give up public concerts and teaching, and concentrate on composing. (I feel kinship with her at this point, as I was asked to give up teaching when I became engaged to a socially prominent man in New York. I did not give it up!)

To honor her husband, she took Mrs. H. H. A. Beach as her name. He was the one to encourage her to write in big forms, which resulted in her composing both her “Gaelic Symphony” and “Mass.”

Beach joined the NLAPW in 1922 looking for support of her own music while at the same time wanting to support other women. Beach played her own works all through the next biennial hosted in Washington, D.C., in April 1924.

After her husband’s death in 1943, she reclaimed her concert career, making tours of Europe and America and playing her own works in addition to traditional piano works. Her works include many fine piano pieces, songs, and chamber music.

She eventually reclaimed her name as Amy Beach. For further study of Beach’s life, an excellent biography is “Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian” by Adrienne Fried Block.

Beach was quoted in the book as saying to Mrs. Edward F. Wiggers in 1935, “How inevitable it was that music should be my life’s work. Both in composition and piano playing, there seemed to be such a strong attraction… that no other life than that of a musician would ever have been possible.”

I play the Beach works in such a way that others can be moved by her beautiful music and also become excited by its brilliance. I feel very privileged and happy to perform her music, especially for those who have never heard her before, and am always pleased by their sense of discovery.

And now with my new CD, I have made it possible for a great many to experience Amy Beach’s music.

Margaret Mills has a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. Following her debut at Carnegie Recital Hall, she has given solo recitals at many concerti, including at such prestigious venues as Alice Tully Hall and Merkin Concert Hall in New York City and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as well as at many venues in Europe.