In 1896, the pianist Raoul Pugno formed a formidable partnership with Eugène Ysaÿe, the preeminent violinist-composer of his day. This Franco-Belgian duo specialized not only in the sonatas of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann, but also in the work of their countrymen—Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, Cesar Franck, and Guillaume Lekeu. One day, the two were hunting around in a bundle of scores for new pieces to play when they came upon a sonata by a composer unfamiliar to them. They were drawn to the piece at once and added it to their repertoire, performing it in April 1900 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. In an interview given a few years after that recital, Pugno said that he and Ysaÿe had no idea, upon discovering the sonata, that its composer happened to be an American woman. This, despite her name—Mrs. H. H. A. Beach—appearing with a flourish on the title page of the score.
Mrs. H. H. A. Beach was the professional identity of Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, one of the significant American composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in the town of Henniker, New Hampshire, in 1867, she was a prodigious and precocious child, having memorized dozens of songs by the age of one and learned to read by three. By four, she could play the piano and compose rudimentary waltzes. She was, by that point, entirely self-taught—only when she turned six did her mother begin giving her piano lessons. She continued her musical education in Boston, after the Cheney family moved there in 1875, and within a decade, she was appearing as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Whatever hopes she may have had for a concert career ended that year, when she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a much-respected Boston surgeon who lectured at Harvard and sang in his spare time. The difference in their ages—she was 18, he 43—might be startling. Less so, given the circumstances of the age, was Dr. Beach’s request that his wife largely refrain from performing in public so that she could keep a respectable house. He did, however, strongly support her desire to compose. As she would later write,
It was he more than any one else who encouraged my interest upon the field of musical composition in the larger forms. It was pioneer work, at least in this country, for a woman to do, and I was fearful that I had not the skill to carry it on, but his constant assurance that I could do the work, and keen criticism whenever it seemed to be weak in spots, gave me the courage to go on.
She had but a single year of instruction in the basics of harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint. The rest she figured out on her own, studying every textbook she could acquire, poring over scores, committing to memory the greatest fugues in the literature—and later entire symphonies—to the point that she could set them all down on staff paper without peeking at the originals.
In 1892, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston performed Beach’s sprawling Mass in E flat, a success that led to several vocal commissions. Four years later, she finished her most famous work, the Symphony in E Minor, known as the Gaelic—the first symphony composed by a woman to be performed by a prominent orchestra, in this case, the Boston Symphony. The work, which drew from Irish melodies well ingrained in American popular music, helped make Beach’s reputation. And over time, as she shook off the influences of Wagner and Brahms and began to experiment with bolder harmonic idioms, she produced several other major pieces, including the Piano Concerto (1899), the Piano Quintet (1907), and a one-movement String Quartet (1929), for me her most adventurous composition.
The work that had so enchanted Ysaÿe and Pugno—the Sonata for Piano and Violin in A minor—was completed in June 1896, the same year as the Gaelic Symphony. Beach and Franz Kneisel, the Boston Symphony’s concertmaster, premiered it the following year. The composer’s lyrical gifts are evident from the first measures of the opening movement, in the mingling of two contrasting melodies, one brooding, the other sweet. The entire thematic structure of the movement evolves from these lines, and the alternating currents of extreme emotion—tempestuous passages followed by tender, cantabile lines, with the tension provided by frequent modulation and chromatic harmonies—place the work squarely in the world of high Romanticism. Brahms is the most obvious model here, but in the second movement, a playful, jaunty scherzo, Mendelssohn’s shade seems to happily haunt its first and third sections. The slower trio section provides a stark and unexpected contrast. It consists of a strange, aromatic passage in the piano (it seems to float in some otherworldly harmonic realm) with the violin playing a largely unvarying line on the open G string.
The beginning of the third movement recalls Brahms again, this time, certain moments in his Piano Sonata No. 3. Full of sadness and longing, the music is shaped out of lithe, very long phrases that convey an epic narrative quality. The opening piano line, for example, is made up of an eight-bar phrase that is answered by another eight-bar phrase in the violin. A lovely contrast comes later, in the expressive, impassioned heart of the movement, where the passage is divided into phrases of two, two, four, and then eight bars, the impression being not of one deep breath, but rather a succession of smaller ones, each phrase becoming subtly longer, the feeling of agitation steadily building. After this exquisite stretch, the sonata’s finale seems almost like a letdown, although the movement is redeemed by the appearance of a clever fugue—a delightful look back to the world of baroque counterpoint before the sweep of romantic feeling returns, leading to an energetic end.
In its early days, the sonata received mainly positive reviews. One rhapsodic assessment, appearing in a 1912 number of The Violinist, praised the sonata as “one of the beautiful and strong things that reposes in our Temple of Delight.” The author of the article, George Mortimer Bush, went on, in slightly purplish prose, to extoll the virtues of each of the movements, but his conclusion was both sober and lean:
The work is strong, impassioned and full of powerful, emotional impulse. The contrapuntal texture is woven with sovereign skill. It is a work that will broaden the artistic horizon of the most fastidious connoisseur. It will prove a revelation to him as regards the status of creative art in America.
And yet, like so many American pieces of that era, the sonata did not endure. Beach enjoyed a fruitful career, committing herself again to piano performance after the death of her husband in 1910—she would play concerts in the winter months, then spend the summers composing at her cottage on Cape Cod. She died in 1944, by which time modern music had long since made her work seem dated. In this respect, she suffered the same fate as her fellow New Englanders George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, Horatio Parker, and the elder statesman of that group, John Knowles Paine. All of them deserve our serious attention, not only for the skill they brought to bear on several important compositions, but also for being musical pioneers in what was a vast American wilderness.
Listen to violinist Joseph Silverstein and pianist Gilbert Kalish perform Amy Beach’s Sonata in the playlist below:
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