The following is a guest post by Music Cataloger Laura Yust, who recently researched composer Johanna Beyer in a seminar about American Modernist composers. Laura is pursuing her M.A. in Musicology at The Catholic University of America.
Many people know of the composer Henry Cowell and his innovative compositions, but the name Johanna Magdalena Beyer does not ring with the same level of familiarity. Beyer (1888-1944) was also a member of the group of modernist composers active in New York during the 1930s. A pioneer in her own right, Beyer was one of the first composers to write for percussion ensemble and experiment with electronic music. She studied composition with both Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford, both of whom influenced much of Beyer’s music with their interest in dissonant counterpoint. In studying with Henry Cowell at the New School for Social Research, Beyer developed a friendship with Cowell – one that turned out to be important for both composers.
Several collections in the Music Division of the Library of Congress document and shed light on the various activities and efforts Beyer pursued on behalf of Cowell and his career. The Percy Grainger Collection (available on microfilm in the Music Division) contains many letters from Beyer to Grainger, as well as one from Cowell to Beyer. The letters in the Fabian Sevitsky-Johanna Beyer Correspondence detail many of Beyer’s activities and negotiations concerning performances of Cowell’s music. In addition, the Serge Koussevitzky Collection contains correspondence from Beyer, Beyer’s CV, and an outline and work plan of her opera Status Quo. Some of the letters in the collection reveal a feisty personality, exemplified in one letter where Beyer scolds Koussevitzky: “I have sent you some very fine scores and a few letters, yet there has not been any response from you! Henry Cowell is not only a great composer, but also an outstanding human being, he above all deserves to get a break.” By examining these materials, we are able to form an image of an intensely devoted friend who was determined to support Cowell’s career, perhaps at the expense of her own.
Beyer was regarded in her limited musical community as an accomplished musician and composer, although her talent and career never achieved far-reaching recognition or praise in her own time. Beyer died at 55 years of age after suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and her music was neglected for many years thereafter. Recent publications of Beyer’s modernist works have brought more attention to the composer, and several sound recordings now exist. I encourage you to read more articles and essays about this fascinating yet forgotten composer.