Women of note logo

back to home page back to Contents page back to Composers page

celebrating three hundred years of music by women

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Beach was the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large scale art music and was celebrated during her lifetime as the foremost woman composer of the USA. Amy's early feats included improvising duets before the age of two, playing by ear in full harmony at four, and giving public recitals at seven. She taught herself composition by studying the great masters, and as an outstanding pianist, her solo and concerto debuts in Boston were rapturously received. Aged eighteen she married Dr H.H.A.Beach, a distinguished Boston surgeon, slightly older than her father. He restricted her concert appearances, but encouraged her composing. Not least, thanks to him, she left over 300 works, including the Gaelic Symphony, a Piano Concerto, a large scale Mass, and numerous songs and choral works. Her song Ecstasy sold so well that she bought her summer house on Cape Cod with the royalties. She gathered numerous honours and was twice received at the White House. Although considered old fashioned before she died, her music is now being greatly appreciated for its passion and sensuality.

To hear Diana Ambache talk about Amy Beach, click here.

Both of the Ambache recordings of Beach's chamber music were awarded a Rosette in the Penguin CD Guide.
There are some sound clips below, and you can purchase them from the Ambache CD shop via links on this page.

If you want more information on Amy Beach from the web, try this link.

Click on these works for more details below: Back to Contents
Quintet for Piano & Strings in F sharp minor, Op 67, 1907
1. Adagio - Allegro moderato, F sharp minor. 2. Adagio expressivo, D flat major. 3. Allegro agitato, F sharp major. 23 mins
An eloquent and expansive piece, the Quintet shows the power and prowess of her technique. It is a fine example of the passion and sheer energy that her music expresses within a solidly wrought structure. The Boston Transcript's review of the first performance described it as "rhapsodic ... substantial ... variously imagined and restlessly expressive." The opening Allegro runs with great flexibility, while the intensely prepared (and postponed) climaxes of the slow movement contain a devastating sensual charge. Beach's fresh ear for sound colour leads her several times to use the strings in unison (rather than the more usual octaves). Subtle links among the themes culminate in an explicit recall of the Quintet's opening during the finale. The Ambache Ensemble gave the London première in 1997 and then recorded it for Chandos Records (Chan 9752).
Here's the opening of the Piano Quintet, played by my Ensemble, on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach, including other works on this page. The BBC Music Magazine commented "Her Piano Quintet is a fine piece by any standards, distinguished by some memorable melodic writing, especially in the deeply felt slow movement. The members of The Ambache meet its demands with technical command and passionate fervour."
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02626) USA

Back to Contents
Theme & Variations for Flute & String Quartet, Op 80, 1916
Theme: Lento di molto, sempre espressivo. 1: L'istesso tempo. 2: Allegro giusto. 3. Andantino con morbidezza. 4: Presto leggiero. 5: Largo di molto, con grand'espressione - Presto leggiero. 6: Allegro giocoso. Tempo del Thema. 21 mins
This quintet was commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber Music Society and premiered in 1916. It has been much admired for its classical restraint. The theme comes from Beach's partsong An Indian Lullaby, and is anounced by the strings alone. The flute makes a dramatic entrance opening Variation 1 with a brilliantly contrasting and animated cadenza. The strings enter with the theme as before, ignoring the flute, which then provides an obbligato to the strings. Gradually the flute's melodic exoticism and animated rhythmic patterns penetrate the strings, and become increasingly important in the working out of the successive variations. By the last variation, flute and strings have made a total exchange of material, thus unifying the composition, which is rounded off by a recapitulation of both the theme and the flute cadenza.
The Ambache Chamber Ensemble gave the UK première in 1998 and then recorded it for Chandos Records (Chan 9752). Here's Variation IV from Flute Quintet, played by my Ensemble, on the Beach CD in Ambache Recordings, (with other works).
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02639) USA

Back to Contents
Quartet for Strings in One Movement, Op 89, 1921
Grave - Piu animato; Allegro molto; Grave. 2 vns, va, vc. 15 mins
The quartet is another of Beach's powerful works, featuring her interest in Inuit melodies. It was one of few of her works not to be published in her lifetime, and was finally made available by the American Musicological Society in 1994. The overall form is of a modified arch (ABCBA). There is strong atmosphere of grief in the freely composed and dissonant introduction. Beach shows herself at her most progressive in her treatment of dissonance, only resolving at the very end. The central portion of the quartet has themes based on three Inuit melodies. Beach found the tunes in the same Alaskan Inuit monograph from which she had previously borrowed tunes for her Eskimos suite. After the opening Grave, there is a recitative-like statement of "Summer Song", followed by a long passage based on the lyrical first strain of "Playing at Ball", with an ostinato accompaniment on the cello. A fragment of "Ititaujang's Song" is combined with the second strain of "Playing at Ball" with considerable development of both.The climax of the work is a fugue based on rhythmically transformed melodic fragments of "Ititaujang's Song". The melodies seem quite stark, even bleak. All four string parts have musical lines derived entirely from motives found in the three Inuit tunes. The Inuit melodies are the basis for the contrapuntal lines and saturate the texture. Through her use of unresolved dischord, Beach's music suggests the frozen north of the Inuit.
Our recording on Chandos Records (Chan 10162) was issued in 2003, and Classic fm Magazine commented "Bravo to the Ambache for resuscitating these pieces; the String Quartet is particularly worth hearing in this sympathetic performance".
We give the UK première in February 2004. Here's an excerpt from the String Quartet played by my Ensemble, on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach2, (which includes other works on this page).
Published by A-R Editions (USA); e-mail: orders@areditions.com

Back to Contents
Pastorale for Wind Quintet, Op 151, 1941
Lento Tranquillo, G major. fl, ob, cl, hn, bn. 4 mins
This is a flowing sicilienne, with attractive writing for all five parts.
It is on our Chandos recording Chan 10162. Here's an excerpt from Pastorale, played by my Ensemble, on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach2, with other chamber works on this page.
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02638) USA

Back to Contents
Trio for piano, violin & cello in A minor, Op 150, 1938
1. Allegro, A minor. 2. Lento espressivo, F sharp minor. 3. Allegro con brio, A major. 15 mins
Though a late work, Beach here enjoyed developing her own earlier material. She wrote it in 15 days at the MacDowell Colony, and it is distinctly tonal. The piano opens with a Debussian rippling arpeggiated figure, over which the cello plays a beautiful sustained theme. In the second movement Beach returns to the form she created in the Gaelic Symphony, presenting a scherzo section in duple meter embedded between lyrical outer sections. The perky scherzo stands in complete contrast to the sensual, Brahmsian thirds and sixths of the Lento. The finale has a more immediately American quality, with catchy string syncopations over the piano's tremolandi.
This is another work on our 1999 Chandos Records (Chan 9752). Here's part of the slow movement of the Piano Trio played by my Ensemble, on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach, including other works on this page.
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02613) USA

Back to Contents
Sonata for Violin & Piano in A minor, Op 34. 1896
1. Allegro moderato, A minor. 2. Scherzo: Molto vivace, G major. 3. Largo con dolore, E minor. 4. Allegro con fuoco. 32 mins
The Sonata is written on a grand scale, and based on traditional classical sonata form, using a rich harmonic vocabulary typical of late German romanticism. Long expansive melodic lines often overlap as do the harmonies, creating complex and interesting textures. The piano part is thickly written and attention to balance is needed. Both parts require virtuoso performers and the violin writing includes some beautiful cantabile writing. The lighter style of the Scherzo contrasts well with the intense tragedy of the slow movement and stiring energy of the outer movements.
Gabrielle Lester and I recorded it for Chandos Records (Chan 10162). Here's the end of the Violin Sonata on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach, including other works on this page.
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02573) USA

Back to Contents
Dreaming, Op 15, No 3, 1892
Molto lento e tranquillo. vc, pn. 6 mins
This glorious miniature is an arrangement by the composer of an early piano piece. It is on our Chandos recording (Chan 10162), played by Judith Herbert and myself. Here's the end of Dreaming on her CD in the Ambache Recordings Beach2, including other works on this page. The BBC Music Magazine said it is "ravishingly played".
Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02599) USA

Romance, Op 23, 1893
Andante. vn or vc, pf. 7 mins
This popular chamber work was dedicated to Maud Powell, the virtuoso violinist acknowledged as one of the most remarkable of her generation, regardless of gender. Beach and Powell premièred the work at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893; the generous applause caused them to repeat the entire performance for an encore. In ternary form, it developes the main theme through different tonalities; it avoids sentimentality yet sustains the passionate atmosphere. Violinist Christa Powell and pianist Therese Milanovic have recorded it on Muses Trio: Romance Published by Hildegard (Nr 494-02570) USA

Back to Contents
Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian by Adrienne Fried Block, 1998
This is a richly written biography, beautifully illustrating Beach as an important composer. With a substantial account of Beach's life and music, this is a major contribution to both American musical understanding and an appreciation of life as a woman composer.
Published by Oxford University Press.

Other important works include: Gaelic Symphony in e minor, Op 32, published by Serenissima and Edwin Kalmus;
and Grand Mass in E flat, Op 5, on Master Music Publications.
Where another Edition is not listed, scores and parts can be got from Ambache.

Both these CDs have been awarded a Rosette in the Penguin Guide to CDs. Further comments on the recordings:
Chandos 9752: "The Chandos version from Diana Ambache and her group is even richer (than the Roscoe/Endellion recording), more passionately involving, amd the coupling with two other fine chamber works is more apt. These are marvellously performances of three highly rewarding works, superbly recorded." Rosette in Penguin Guide to CDs
"Amy Beach's Piano Quintet of 1908 is a fine piece by any standards, expertly written in a late Romantic idiom owing most to Brahms and Dvorak, and distinguished by some memorable melodic writing, especially in the deeply felt slow movement. The members of the Ambache...meet its demands with technical command and passionate fervour...a well-rounded portrait of a significant figure, which, with a clear recording in a warm church acoustic, makes enjoyable listening from beginning to end" Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine
"...her quintet is given a rich and brooding performance by the Ambache. The Trio, a later work (1939), is delicately played, exposing Beach's lyrical writing with great refinement." Tarik O'Regan, Observer
"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." Brian Hunt, The Mail on Sunday.
Chandos 10162: "Bravo to the Ambache for resuscitating these pieces; the String Quartet is particularly worth hearing in this sympathetic performance" Jessica Duchen, Classic fm Magazine
"The disc is thoroughly recommended for the group's perceptive and idiomatic approach to this delicate and enchanting music. ... a sparkling reading of the Violin Sonata, with beautifully measured lyrical lines. The dancing Scherzo is lithe and lovely, the Largo crafted with much sensitivity, and the bravura finale is rich with interest." Catherine Nelson, The Strad
"The two attractive rarities are a bonus: the Pastorale is impeccably performed; and Dreaming is ravishingly played by Judith Herbert. Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine
"First class performances and recording, and worth having for the String Quartet, one of Beach's most memorable works."

The above Sound Clips come from the Ambache/Beach CDs on Chandos: Nos 9752 and 10162; they are free. Each CD costs £14 (+p&p). You can order it, world-wide, using a Credit Card or PayPal. It is NOT necessary to join PayPal, just follow the 'Don't have a PayPal account?' links and the system will process your credit card in the normal way.

back to top