Review Summary: A Giant of American Music.
Women of Classical Music. No. 1
It was 2010 when I was first introduced to the shortcomings of music history. “Western Musicology”, I remember my professor saying, “lags behind the trends in all of the other historical disciplines. Discussions concerning women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community, to name only a few, simply have not taken place in our field.” To demonstrate she assigned us a very recently written scholarly article which juxtaposed the music of the German masters and the music of Chopin. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and even Schubert, the author wrote, is replete with gestures that suggest manliness. The music of these masters has a preoccupation with strength, bravery, power, valor, excellence, transcendence, and virtue, all the while musically hurling you towards that end. To me, the Latin word virtus
, “manly virtue”, sums it up quite nicely. Musical virtus
is particularly evident in the symphonies of Beethoven, the late piano sonatas of Schubert, and the fugues of Bach. Even the expression of sensitivity in the music of the German masters reflects a muted sense of virtus
. Sing-style melodies typically land on the strong beat, and harmonies change with a rhythmic regularity.
On the other hand, the music, especially the nocturnes, of Chopin studiously eschew virtus
. They exist to express what is the greatest degree of privacy, even if that means feelings of violence or terror. There’s a discernable difference between the intimacy of Chopin’s nocturnes and say something you might find in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. Where Beethoven is driving, Chopin is gentle. Where Bach is transcendent, Chopin is personal. Where Schumann is manic, Chopin is crystalline. And so on and so forth. A question naturally arises. From where did Chopin derive his inspiration？Internally, or externally？The author then drew a parallel between Chopin and music of Romantic women such as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. There is much that is structurally and expressively similar between the lot of them. Perhaps then, the author wrote, we ought to reconsider the role that these women, who previously have not been afforded too much scholarly analysis or serious discussion, played in the development and solidification of the Romantic era. Perhaps we should take a fresh look with clear and sober eyes at the music of women in general; we should, and this last piece is what I aim to do in this series.
The logical place for me to start is with Amy Beach. I say for me because to my way of thinking Beach was a superlatively skilled composer, infinitely superior to that of even the immortal Clara Schumann. I’m not being hyperbolic; Beach easily could have qualified for MENSA: by the age of one years old
Beach was matching pitch from start to finish correctly on over forty
tunes—not even Mozart who was and will remain the most gifted prodigy that the world has ever—ever—ever—ever seen was that skilled at the same age—by age two Beach was improvising counterpoint, at age three she taught herself to read, by age four Beach’s musical animus was so sophisticated that she could compose polished pieces for the piano without
the use of the instrument, and by age seven Beach was giving recitals of Chopin, Beethoven, and Handel. All of this was accomplished, mind you, without the use of a pedagogue. It wasn’t until the ages of eight and fourteen respectively that Beach had formal piano and composition lessons. These would be the only ones she ever needed. Beach went on to teach herself the rules of counterpoint, harmony, fugue, and orchestration even going so far as to translate Berlioz’s French treatise on orchestration into English for her own instruction.
But these sorts of ultra-exceptional musical accomplishments are actually quite commonplace among the giants of western music. More interesting than the facts of Beach’s prodigy are the facts of her nationality; she was an American. It’s important to understand that at this time American music was seen as derivative and far below the standards of the great European masters. And it was. There were a few mid-19th century virtuosi here and there, and perhaps a big name like Lowell Mason would pop up once a decade or so. But most 19th century American musicians were actually more preoccupied with bringing the music of Europe across the Atlantic rather than composing their own. It was taken for granted that the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin were insurmountable, so why even try？It’s quite a testament to Beach’s otherworldly musicianship, then, that she did not benefit from a European musical upbringing, and more importantly that she helped turn the tide from derivate and subpar European music to original and outstanding American music.
Beach was born on September 5th 1867 in Henniker, New Hampshire. In 1875 the family moved to a suburb just across the Mystic River from Boston, and it would be in this city—the musical capital of America at the turn of the century—that Beach would reach heights of prominence absolutely unheard of for a female classical musician. For one thing over the next twenty years Beach would perform with, you know, the Boston Music Hall and Boston Symphony earning receptions “enthusiastic in the extreme”. But it was Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony in E-minor, Op. 32 composed in 1896 that firmly placed her in the avant-garde of turn of the century American musicians. These “Boston Six” as they were known are considered the foremost pre-Charles Ives American composers.
Beach’s Gaelic Symphony is a milestone in the history of western music. Not only was it the first ever symphony composed, published, and performed by an American woman, but it was the first American symphony to incorporate Irish folk music into a large-scale form, hence the name “Gaelic Symphony”. The obvious counterpart to Op. 32 is Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” from which Beach drew musical and philosophical inspiration. But where Dvorak incorporated Native-American and African-American music into a romantic idiom, Beach felt differently “[we] of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors." Make of that what you will.
The first movement of the Gaelic Symphony, Allegro con fuoco
, is in a standard sonata-allegro form, yet is rich in orchestration, tonal shading, and autumnal leitmotifs. Brahms would have been proud. Additionally, the size of the symphony itself is gargantuan, lending the themes of the movement a thickness absent say in the symphonies of Mozart. The most important thing to know is that Beach is less concerned with thematic development than with orchestration; you will see themes passed back and forth between the orchestra restated in almost the exact same form. The thing to listen to, then, is the shading each section of the orchestra lends to the theme. Pay attention to how the strings sound with the winds, how the winds sound with the horns, how the horns sound with the timpani, and how each section sounds by themselves. As for the first movement’s themes, each are taken from a turbulent sea song, “Dark is the Night”, that Beach composed earlier in the decade. The lyrics of the song itself are adapted from a book of verses by the English poet William Ernest Henley, and juxtapose one’s restless thoughts with the soul crushing darkness of a night sans the moon.
The piece begins with an introduction in the low strings that materialize out of nothingness and quickly come to a booming fortissimo. I am reminded of the opening of Beethoven’s ninth. The strings quite effortlessly evoke what it must be like to experience hurricane force winds on the open ocean, pushed and pulled as you are at their mercy. T.1 and T.2, with their grand horn calls and dancing strings, again, evoke the infinity of a pitch-black night. Beach then introduces a third theme that quite nicely balances out the exposition, a brief yet sunny woodwind figure based on a Gaelic dance tune. Skipping the traditional repeat of the exposition, Beach heads straight into the development which sees the themes beautifully adapted into a romantic idiom. Think of it as if Mahler had chosen traditional Irish folk melodies for his 9th symphony. The themes are enlarged, expanded upon, and afforded additional time for orchestrational shading. Followed is a climatic recapitulation and a driving coda that propels you to the finish line.
The second movement, marked Alla siciliana–Allegro vivace
, is based on the Irish tune “Little Field of Barley”, and acts as an inverted minuet with pairs of slow sections surrounding a faster one. Even if you’ve never heard the tune—I hadn’t—very quickly will you be able to tell of its entrance. The reason the German masters never saw fit to symphonically treat folk material is because often folk is not intellectually rigorous enough to merit at least forty minutes’ worth of orchestration. It would be like setting “Oh My Darling, Clementine” to symphony. But what the masters did not know is that the earthy nature of folk is exactly
what makes its symphonic treatment so beautiful, and Beach’s treatment of the tune at hand does not disappoint. The melody is a quite beautiful adagio
lilting figure that Beach passes around from the horns to the winds which allows for a respite from the tumultuous first movement. Sandwiched in between the outer sections is a bubbly and animalistic moto perpetuo
variation that is joyous and carefree. Bracketing the middle section is the return of the siciliana
which now sees the theme passed gorgeously between oboe and English horn.
The third movement, Lento con molto espressione
, draws on two Irish tunes “Cushlamachree”, or “Come o’er the sea” and “Which way did she go”. In Beach’s own words the movement evokes “the laments of a primitive people, their romance and their dreams.” Kinda racist I agree but hey it was the 1890s. “Cushlamachree” is a hauntingly beautiful rhapsody on the pain one feels losing a loved one, and Beach’s treatment accentuates these features. Of the four, movement three is the most static. This makes it of paramount importance to pay attention to the orchestration which, again, is rich and autumnal. Peppered throughout the movement are solos for violin, cello, oboe, and one section that turns decisively from the minor to major mode allowing for a brief respite from the somber attitude of the rest of the movement.
The forth movement, Allegro di molto
is set in sonata form. As the focal point of the symphony Beach pulls out all the stops showcasing her unbelievably impressive contrapuntal abilities. Like most Romantic era symphonies, Op. 32 is cyclic. This means that material from one movement can be recycled in another. As such, the first theme of the forth movement comes from the tail end of the opening movement’s first melody. Beach’s treatment is quite rigorous, even Beethovenian, as the rhythm is obsessively repeated in practically every bar. The second theme is a lyrical figure heard in the woodwinds and strings and lends itself rather easily to canonic treatment. Think row, row, row your boat. As opposed to the first movement whose gravitational pull revolves around the development, here Beach downsizes the section into a sonically tight, yet substantial enough package to pave the way for the mammoth recapitulation. Once the recap is over, we reach the final code which sees climax after climax and is an example of “music simply being overwhelmed by its own exuberance” before ending in blasts of a beautifully bright yellow E major.
Beach’s “Gaelic” symphony was an enormous success. The only critiques of the piece had to do with the gender of the composer rather than the dry ink on the score, which was universally recognized as masterful, with one of her contemporaries going on to say that “there is nothing feminine about the writing; all her work is strong and brilliant.” As you can see from the not so subtle sexism of the quote, symphonies were for men, and by Beach’s death in 1944 that prevailing attitude had swallowed up the “Gaelic” symphony whole; it was performed infrequently at best. For shame. The sixties opened academia to new ways of thinking, and if Beach had been a novelist she wouldn’t have had to wait so long to get her due. On the bright side, if you thought the 1890s were bad, at least they weren’t the 1770s. At least Beach wasn’t Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s genius
sister who would have had a colossal career in composition, probably somewhere nearing Mozart’s own, if it hadn’t been for the brutal dictatorship of male sex. Nannerl outlived Beethoven and went on to publish exactly zero pieces over her 78-year life. A small consolation, I know.