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Amy Beach

New wave of women led by a Beach lover

By Brian Hunt

The Mail on Sunday, 28 November 28 1999

One can hardly be surprised that the music of American composer Amy Beach should evoke a repressed life force struggling for freedom. Amy Marcy Cheney - who would later take the surname Beach on marriage - had an exceptional musical gift.

It became manifest soon after her birth in 1867, but her strict Victorian mother was not overly encouraging. When, at six, Amy was finally allowed music lessons, the piano might still be locked as a punishment.

A composer from infancy, she was being published by the age of 16. Two years later, when her dual career as a composer and concert pianist was burgeoning, she married Dr H.H.A. Beach, a surgeon well established in Boston society (he was actually older than her father). The assumption of social and domestic duties suspended her performing career until her husband's death in 1910.

It would be wrong to present Amy Beach as a martyr - her mother sought to discipline her talent, not stifle it, and her husband encouraged her composing - but the sense of reined-in passion is hard to ignore. The 1939 Piano Trio, Op 50, a sequence of fleeting visions and muffled cries, has a claustrophobic airlessness. This seems to intensify rather than limit the music's potency, and the jaunty finale's dispersal of tension gains in effect.

The Piano Quintet in F sharp minor begins with an unashamedly Brahmsian sweep - but not even Brahms would keep the textures as dark, unventilated and close as this.

Only in the Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet (1916) does the thick scoring create an impression of solidity - most notably the stuck-in-the-mud fugue with which Beach dutifully concludes. Interesting that the most disciplined of all musical forms should find her at her least inspired. Yet the largo that precedes the finale is, like all the slow movements on this disc, ravishingly beautifaul. The playing, recorded in mellow church acoustics, could hardly be better.

Flautist Helen Keen has a refreshingly focused and steady tone, and the string players are perfectly attuned to Beach's mixture of headiness and firm control. Most treasurable of all is the glowing, searching and unfailingly sensitive playing of the ensemble's leader, Diana Ambache.

In recent years Ambache has invested an extraordinary amount of time and energy into researching, editing and performing the music of women composers. Her recordings and concert series have both highlighted and defeated the eerie ability of history to condemn female composers to obscurity, kicking over the traces so that each new generation has been unaware of its heritage.

Read the journals of women composers from baroque times to the 20th Century and you will find many echoes of the question asked of herself by Clara Schumann (like Beach, a composer, pianist and wife):'Why should I succeed where no woman has succeeded before me?'

Thanks to the continuing process of enlightenment, of which this new CD is part, the presence of women in composing history is no longer hidden. Some rewarding music, such as Beach's, has been uncovered, but the real gains for all of us will come in the future, when female composers can offer their gifts to the world with due pride and confidence. Brian Hunt


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