Caught between genius and restraint

Amy Beach
June 30, 2000

Something of the rapid change in focal length required for an accurate assessment of Amy Beach and her music can be gauged from her inclusion in three distinct editions of Grove's. There is a short entry in the main dictionary, but also in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music and the New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers .

Beach's status as the first American woman symphonist had always guaranteed at least footnote status in standard histories. Other categories are more problematic. Beach was resistant to Americanism in music, preferring to align herself with a "universal" style, by which she meant one responsive to European developments. How much of this was a consoling rationalisation may be judged from Adrienne Fried Block's painstaking reconstruction of a career suspended awkwardly between genius and conventional restraint.

Identified as a prodigy at the age of two, Amy Marcy Cheney was denied access to a piano, to music teachers, to the concert platform and, crucially for her self-definition, to study in Europe, the normal path to success for American musicians in the late 19th century. At her marriage, it was decided that professional performance was inconsistent with her standing as the wife of an eminent Boston surgeon, and for much of her career she was known as Mrs H. H. A. Beach. However, if this betrays the familiar contours of revisionist, feminist biography, the truth is more complex, for Amy's apparent willingness to suspend her playing career was countered by Henry Beach's enthusiastic support of her composition.

Amy Beach's essential talent and facility are beyond question. How and where she stands in the great tradition of European classical music is more complex. The lack of formal training and of professional assessment of her work is easily detected in a tendency to elaboration, to undue embellishment. The E minor "Gaelic" Symphony (1894-96) is an odd mixture of structural maturity and an almost laughable naivety of expression. The best work lies among the songs, many of them written for and performed by Henry.

Block's patient reconstruction of the complex mediations that shaped Beach's career is a refreshing change from the one-dimensional revisionism of some recent biographies. It seems unlikely that Amy Beach's music will ever be canonical. Its real fascination is in how it reflects music-making and gender roles in early 20th-century America. This is better social history than it is musical history.

Brian Morton is editor of Contemporary Music.

Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian

Author - Adrienne Fried Block
ISBN - 0 19 507408 4 and 513784 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.50
Pages - 410

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