April 13, 2011

Composers A-Z: Beach

The letter B is sacred ground in the world of music. I decided for the sake of convenience and so I wouldn't go crazy trying to make a decision, that some composers were disqualified for this letter because they're just too entrenched in the pantheon of greats. Therefore, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms aren't in the running for this installment of Composers A-Z (although it was originally going to be Beethoven).

There are about five hundred composers whose names start with B and maybe sometime I'll give a run-down of my favorite "B" composers but for this one I've decided to write a bit about Mrs. Amy Marcy Cheney Beach.

Amy Beach (1867-1944)


Amy Beach is very well known for her art-song catalog but after being assigned one of her pieces for a quick-study assignment as an undergrad I fell in love with her piano compositions. Many American composers in the late Romantic period allied themselves with the European school of style and Beach is no exception. Her compositions are essentially Lisztian although I think they contain a greater sense of humor and lightness than the Hungarian master's piano music. This absence of total European creative infiltration is perhaps a result of her never being sent to Europe like so many other composers (among them Lou Harris, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber) but instead being trained in America.

Historically Amy Beach is a bit of a conundrum for feminist music scholars. She is the first American woman to see great success as a composer, and after her husband's death she made a great name for herself as a performer both domestically and abroad. Currently, her name is the only woman's name etched amongst other great composers at Boston's Hatch Shell. On the other side though, she published most of her works under her husband's name, with the signature Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and while married, she seldom performed, turning instead to composition. I think that it is unfair to look at these facts through 21st century lenses though, and it is better to simply view her a great composer, one of the greatest of her generation and one of if not the greatest of the early American composers.

Beach's compositions have a wide range of styles, from the simplistic yet emotional as in "Scottish Legend" (video below) to the downright scalding as in the Variations on a Balkan Theme and the Tyrolean Waltz Fantasie. A fantastic pianist herself, some of her compositions are extremely difficult, and as such can be difficult to get hold of. Scores for the two works I just mentioned are hard to come by, but I think if more pianists picked up on them publishers might be less afraid to put out decent copies of them.

The pieces I've played, "Scottish Legend" and "La Fee de la Fontaine" from La Reves de Columbine are both quasi-programmatic and extremely evocative of their subject matter. She manipulates textures and what have become cliche stock Romantic figures to create sound worlds that not only titillate the audience but give performers something to chew on intellectually. She uses the register of the piano to create the sensation of floating high above the ground one minute to being dashed across the rocks the next.

Here is a video of her piece "Scottish Legend" (as played by a guy who looks an incredible amount like Larry David):



This actually isn't one of my favorite Beach pieces, but it's a great introduction. This piece plays it extremely safe (and the video really doesn't do it justice) and the rhythms are fairly unexciting but it does showcase her great ear for interesting harmony and simplicity of melody.

One of her greatest works, and a piece that should be played more often is her Piano Concerto. I have no idea why this piece does not get programmed more often. It is equal to the Grieg Concerto, and superior to many of the Mozart Concertos (although I know it's unfair to compare them). I think orchestras view the programming of the Beach Concerto as too much of a novelty, especially when they know they can draw a crowd in or sell records with a Beethoven Concerto (Minnesota Orchestra I'm looking at you) but this piece is fantastic and deserves to be programmed. Here is an excerpt from that work:



 I've seen a surge in Amy Beach's popularity over the past several years although if this is real or just due to my own awareness I'm not sure. Regardless, after some years in the middle part of the 20th century she is finally being recognized as the great composer that she was.

Here are some of the honorable mentions I considered (I mean besides the huge ones):

  • Bela Bartok - Bartok's Piano Sonata is incredible, and his dances and improvisations on folk themes are staples of the repertoire. Also his concertos...you know I maybe I should have written this about him instead...
  • Samuel Barber - Barber is another great American composer who has contributed fewer works to the piano repertoire than some other composers, but those works have become giants of the canon. His Piano Sonata is monolithic in the American sonata catalog, and his Piano Concerto is as great as Beach's.
  • Bach, the Entire Family - There are so many Bachs and such little time. Did you know Bach means brook in German? Now you do!
  • Mily Balakirev - But only for Islamey, and really is Islamey that great? Oh it is? Okay.
  • William Bolcom - Another American composer who has written some excellent dance music and the 12 New Etudes for Piano for which he won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in music yet which is still largely and sadly unknown outside of academic circles.
  • Blind Tom
I probably will have a whole article dedicated to all of my favorite letter "B" composers, but until then, look forward to the letter "C". Unless I disqualify a certain Polish composer because he's in the pantheon, you can probably guess who it will be.

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