Amy Beach ‘Piano Concerto in C# minor’: Fearless Female Force

Good afternoon readers! Welcome back to the Female Fortnight Challenge, and do I have such a treat to share with you all today! I was thinking of saving this composer and work until nearer the end of the challenge, but I couldn’t help myself so I’m looking into her today! So on this lovely Friday I am looking into perhaps my all-time favourite female composer – Amy Beach! This blog shall be looking into one of her most famous works – Piano Concerto in C# minor. I absolutely love this concerto, so I hope you can also find some love for the mighty female force that is, Amy Beach!

Amy Beach was born in New Hampshire, 1867. It has been extensively documented that Beach was indeed a child prodigy within music. Records say that she was able to sing forty (yes…forty!) songs by the time she was one. By age two she could improvise melodies over pre-existing music. By age three she was competent at reading music. From age four onwards, she began composing simple pieces, such as waltzes. Beach’s mother, Clara, was a well-known pianist and singer herself, and she helped and developed her daughter’s musical talents in her young age. Interestingly, it has been noted that the young Amy Beach had a short temper when it came to music. She would demand certain music to be played, and if it was not up to her standards then she would become enraged. For some time, Clara forbade Amy from playing the family piano, as she did not wish to indulge her after this tempestuous behaviour. However, by age six, Beach began formal piano lessons with her mother. By age seven, Beach was giving public recitals of works by the likes of Chopin and Beethoven, plus her own works. In 1875, the Amy and her family moved to Boston, where the family were advised to send Amy to a European Music Conservatoire. The family opted to stay local and Amy received piano lessons from Carl Baermann (who was a student of Liszt). At age fourteen, Beach received her only formal composition lessons with Junius W. Hill (the rest of her life she was a self-taught composer).

Beach married Dr. Henry Aubrey Beach, who was a Boston-based surgeon who was 24 years older than Amy. Henry did not like Amy giving lots of recitals, so they restricted her performances to two a year, with all proceeds going to charity. Beach then focused on composition more, although she always reiterated that “I am a pianist first and foremost.” As Beach was a self-taught composer, she bought an abundance of books on orchestration, composition, arranging and many more. She translated books so she could understand them. Beach’s husband was incredibly restrictive when it came to his wife. He didn’t allow her to learn composition with a teacher, nor was she allowed to teach piano. Just think what she could have achieved if she was not held back in such a way! Alas, Beach was still a very successful composer, with her Mass in Eb Major being particularly popular when premiered in 1892. Beach is known to be a part of a group called the Boston Six, with other composers such as John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick Horatio Parker and Edward MacDowell. In 1896, Beach premiered her first symphony – Gaelic Symphony. This was a massive milestone in women’s music, as Beach became the first American woman to compose and then further publish a symphony – you go girl! In 1900 Beach was the soloist for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C# minor, with the Boston Symphony accompanying her. From this point, Beach became incredibly popular, and she composed a wealth of works which spanned from chamber music to symphonic works

In 1910, Beach’s husband died, and seven months later her mother also died. To help with her grief, Beach stopped composing for a short period. She travelled to Europe and officially changed her name to ‘Amy Beach’. She travelled with Marcia Craft, an American soprano. The first year Beach rested and grieved, but after that she began giving concerts once more. She premiered her Piano Concerto in C# minor in Leipzig, Hamburg and Berlin, with Beach being the soloist once more. She received the highest acclaim for the work, with one Hamburg critic writing that “we have before us undeniably a possessor of musical gifts of the highest kind; a musical nature touched with genius.” Beach was known to be the first American woman who was “able to compose music of a European quality of excellence.”

Beach returned to America in 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I. She became a primary carer for her cousin, Ethel, who had developed a terminal illness, which conquered her by 1920. Beach spent some time in New York, where she composed and played piano. Beach used her status as a top female composer to help give feedback and coach young composers and musicians. In 1928, Beach received an honorary master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire. During the last years of her life, Beach travelled to Europe again, namely Rome, where she went to many concerts. Upon her return to America for the last time, she retired from composing and performance in 1940 due to heart disease, which eventually led to her death in 1944.

Beach’s Piano Concerto in C# minor was composed between 1898 and 1899, with its first premiere being in 1900. The concerto is dedicated to the Venezuelan musician, Teresa Carreño. It seems that the reason for this dedication indicates Beach’s hope that the work would be performed by other pianists. The work is the first piano concerto by an American female composer. It is still being researched now as to what the piano concerto’s message really is. I find the strongest argument is the idea that the work is a ‘veritable autobiography’, which lines up with what was going on in Beach’s life at the time of composition. Beach commented generally on this saying “A composer might remain apparently unaffected by even the most terrific onslaught upon all that was deepest in his life, and years afterward give expression in music, perhaps unconsciously, to all that experience had cost him.” Contextual evidence suggests that the fight between herself and both her mother and husband during her music career could be a centre point for the basis of the work. The constraints that came with being in a socially determined gender role, took away Beach’s musical space where she could decide what she wanted to do. It seems that she wanted to be a performer, but was forced to become a composer to please her husband. Also with her mother making decisions very early on in Beach’s musical career means that her education was shaped to what she wanted, not necessarily to what Beach wanted. Whilst Beach was composing the Piano Concerto in C# minor, her home life kept her in Boston, however her music let her branch out into the world. After her marriage, her career as a concerto pianist was cut dry, which must have been very difficult for her. So by composing this concerto it was her ticket in to perform with an orchestra once more.

Piano Concerto in C# minor is unusual in its form. Most concertos (especially of the Romantic era) are in three movements, with the outer movements being the same kind of length and the slower middle movement being shorter. Beach instead uses four movements. The first is unusually long, and takes more time than the latter three movements combined! The third movement (Largo) is unusually short, but is intense in its emotional and expressive way. As well as this, three of the movements are somewhat based on some of Beach’s own songs, which were very personal to her. The concerto takes about 35-37 minutes to play through, and it displays a marvellous showcase of dexterity, musicality and nerve. Unlike a lot of my blogs, I am not going to analyse this work as a step through guide, as I believe it should be enjoyed for its wonderful textures and timbres and the dialogue between the piano and orchestra.

Upon you listening to the work the four movements are as follows:

I. Allegro Moderato 

II. Scherzo Vivace (Perpetuum Mobile)

III. Largo 

IV. Allegro con Scioltezza 

I find the first movement ever so intriguing as the opening from the orchestra starts quite dark, but the winds brighten this up when they introduce the theme. The feeling is quite stable and the sounds heard from the orchestra seem rather friendly, if not quite intense. However, when the piano comes in as a solo, the mood is completely changed and the mood is much darker. The block chords played by the soloist are like a proclamation (perhaps representing Beach herself) and her love for the piano. After the rather portentous theme laid out by the orchestra beforehand, the piano plays its own material, essentially ‘standing ground’. The first movement is completely and utterly incredible I think, with it fluctuating from high-romanticism to quite dark almost minimalistic feel. This movement is also the longest and the most developmental of them all. I believe this movement is Beach making a stand against her oppressors (her husband and mother), and the dialogue that can be heard between the piano and orchestra fully emphasise this. The first movement is just so effective in its message that I urge you to listen to it, even if you only listen to one movement, this is the one to listen to!

The second movement shows the contest between the orchestra and piano at an even more intense rate, however this time the piano is on top. This fast-paced movement is thrilling and the piano dominates the receding melodic line, which reverses the usual relationship between orchestra and soloist. This movement is not very long, but it is certainly one of the most energetic!

The third movement, entitled Largo is both the shortest and the slowest section of the work. Beach describes it as “a dark tragic lament” and interestingly it is based on one of her husband’s poem entitled “Twilight.” These are the lyrics:

No sun to warm

The darkening cloud of mist,

But everywhere

The steamy earth sends up

A veil of gray and damp

To kiss the green and tender leaves

And leave its cool imprint

In limpid pearls of dew.

 

The blackened trunks and boughs

In ghostly silhouette

Mark grimly in the coming eve

The shadows of the past.

All sounds are stilled,

The birds have hushed themselves to rest

And night comes fast, to drop her pall

Till morn brings life to all.

 

The relationship between night and day and life and death is prevalent within the text. The music itself is very expressive and darkly portentous. This is the first movement where the orchestra and soloist are not in competition, instead they give each other the space to express what they need to. The lament played by the piano is intensely expressive and it is so elaborate that it becomes incredibly dramatic and intense.

This leads onto the finale movement, which is where the piano reigns supreme over the orchestra for practically the whole movement. The themes are virtuosic and the relationship the soloist has with the orchestra is very complex. I find this movement very bright, fast-paced and exciting – what a finale should be!

So there we have it! Amy Beach’s absolutely incredible Piano Concerto in C# minor is a force to be reckoned with and her musical prowess is not something to put aside lightly. I absolutely love Amy Beach and her music, I think she is an incredible icon for female composers – she made it even though others tried to oppress her. I do hope you have found this blog interesting and have found some love for Amy Beach – her other works are also amazing! Come back tomorrow to see which female force I will be looking into!

Happy Reading!

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