Happy Birthday to Amy Beach!

Amy March (Cheney) Beach, 1867-1944. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Today marks what would be American composer Amy Beach’s 146th birthday! Born in New Hampshire as Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed a gift for music at an incredibly early age, and by the age of eight her family moved to Boston so that Cheney could enjoy the benefits of studying with leading pianists in the city. She made her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut at 18 years old, the same year that she married physician and Harvard University professor Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. At the request of her husband, Amy Beach (also known as Amy Marcy Beach, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, or Mrs. H.H.A. Beach…) shifted her focus from concertizing to composing.

Beach is well-regarded for her large-scale orchestral works as well as her choral and vocal compositions. In the early years of the Music Division, Oscar Sonneck, first ever Chief of the Music Division, was eager and determined to build a world-class music collection in our national library—one that would rival any in Europe. In January 1911 Sonneck, upon discovering that Beach’s piano concerto was not yet a part of the Library’s catalog of orchestral music, wrote a letter to Beach expressing his concern that her piano concerto had not yet been published and requesting that Beach send at least a manuscript copy of her concerto for inclusion in the Library’s collections. He writes, “It seems a pity that our catalogue should contain so many scores of pianoforte concertos by European composers and not yours, which easily holds its own against so many works that have been published in Europe of late years.”

Within a week, Beach responded to Sonneck and explained that unfortunately the only copy of her piano concerto in existence was the one about to be used by Heinrich Hammer of the Washington Symphony Orchestra in performance with Miss Dagmar de Corval Ruebner. As The Washington Post reported the day after the performance on January 18, 1911, “For her debut in the National Capital [Ruebner] had selected a concerto by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, in three movements—allegro moderato, largo, and allegro giocoso. It is a composition that calls not only for great execution but for discriminating musical intelligence.” While she could not send Sonneck the score for her piano concerto, Beach happily sent the original manuscript of her entire Service in A to the Library of Congress. In her words, “I shall be glad to know that the score of one of my most important works rests in so honorable a place.”

Photograph of Amy Beach from the collections of the Music Division of the Library of Congress.

Sonneck and then Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam were grateful for the manuscript; however, both librarians were disturbed to learn that Beach’s orchestral score for her piano concerto existed only in manuscript in a unique copy. Putnam wrote to Beach himself on January 19, 1911 with a proposal: “If you would only let us, we should be but too happy, at our own expense, to have a transcript made for preservation here…for study and for posterity, and to insure against the loss to posterity of a composition so important.” Beach was honored by Sonneck and Putnam’s admiration of her work and gladly permitted the Library to make a copy from her manuscript before it was sent to her publisher, A.P. Schmidt, whose archive the Music Division also holds and which contains more than 130 Beach manuscripts.

Sonneck and Putnam’s persistence in acquiring Beach’s music reflects the great reputation she held amongst contemporary musicians, composers, and critics in both the U.S. and Europe. The Library continued to foster a relationship with Beach that resulted in her donating more manuscripts to our collections such as the cantata Sylvania, the motet Help us, O God!, and the aria “Jeptha’s Daughter,” among others. The Performing Arts Encyclopedia features several pieces of published sheet music by Beach and the Library’s National Jukebox offers access to two recordings of Beach songs. Listen to soprano Laura Littlefield’s 1918 recording of Beach’s “Ah, Love, But a Day,” the second of the composer’s Three Browning Songs, op. 44:

In 1915, Beach published an article in the Los Angeles Examiner called “Music’s Ten Commandments as Given for Young Composers” and at the article’s conclusion asserted: “Remember that technic is valuable only as a means to an end. You must first have something to say—something which demands expression from the depths of your soul. If you feel deeply and know how to express what you feel, you make others feel.” It’s clear from her lasting legacy, documented in the manuscripts, correspondence and newspaper reviews found in our archival collections, that Beach certainly succeeded in “making others feel” the depths of her soul.

One Comment

  1. R. Wolberg
    September 5, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Thank you for this great article! It provides insight into a personal narrative I hadn’t previously known. I especially love the quote from Amy Beach, which you include at the end. It will resonate with many and is especially poignant as a source of reflection.

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