Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach - 'Gaelic' Symphony In E Minor

For most of the history of music, composing was essentially an exclusive male endeavor.  Women could be performers, but mostly in drawing rooms and parlors. The thought of a woman writing anything more serious than piano tunes and songs for the parlor was thought to be unfeminine. There were women composers throughout history nonetheless, but in a world dominated by men, few had the opportunity to have their music performed or published.  In the last quarter of the 19th century a woman composer of serious art music came on the scene in the United States.  She was born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867 and she was a music child prodigy. By the age of four she could play hymns at the piano from memory after hearing them only once, and wrote her first compositions. She also taught herself to read at the same age, and at age six she began formal piano lessons with her mother. A year later she was playing in public music by Beethoven, Chopin, and her own compositions. She made her professional debut in Boston in 1883 and also played as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra the same year.

She married prominent Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885 at age 19.  She acquiesced to her husband's request to severely limit her concert appearances, but he encouraged her to compose.  After her marriage she was known (at her insistence) as Mrs. H.H.A Beach. After the successful performance of her Mass In E-flat Major in 1892 she was accepted as an American composer of the first rank.  After her husband's death in 1910, she resumed her concert pianist career by touring Europe and was acclaimed there as a performer and composer.

Beach wrote the Gaelic Symphony in 1894-1896 and the work was influenced by Antonín Dvořák's 9th Symphony 'From The New World', although Beach rejected the notion that American composers needed to use African American and Native American folks songs for inspiration. She had this to say about Dvořák's symphony:
"The symphony as a whole made a far better impression on me than at its first performance last year. It is interesting throughout, the machinery of it admirably managed, the orchestral and harmonic coloring done by a master. It seems to me light in calibre, however, and to represent only the peaceful, sunny side of the negro character and life. Not for a moment does it suggest their suffering, heartbreaks, slavery."
Beach chose Irish folk tunes as the basis for her symphony. Although not all of the themes used in her symphony are true Irish folk tunes,  her original themes are based on and influenced by Irish tunes. The symphony was premiered in 1896 and played four more times by the Boston orchestra and was also played in other cities across the country. The Gaelic Symphony was the first symphony written by a American woman composer and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The first movement is in sonata form with the first and second themes being taken from Beach's own song of 1892 Dark is the Night. The first theme is in the tempo of a march. The second theme is more lyrical. The final theme of the exposition is an Irish jig called Connor O'Reilly of Clounish. The development section uses the first two themes only. The recapitulation is ushered in by a solo clarinet. The recapitulation uses the same themes in the same order as the beginning. Beach wraps up the first movement with an impressive summing up of the main themes in the coda.

II. Alla siciliana - Allegro vivace - Andante -  An Irish tune is heard on the oboe in a gently rocking tempo, after which the music increases in tempo written in 2/4 time instead of the usual 3/4 time of a scherzo. After the ever-moving scherzo section, the music returns to the opening mood and pace. This movement is a reverse scherzo, the fast-moving scherzo sections and trio sections trade places. After the second playing of the andante, the scherzo reappears briefly to end the movement.

III. Lento con molto espressione - This movement is in sonata form and uses two Irish songs. The first is played by solo cello and violin, the second by brass and the orchestra. Both themes are developed at length. The recapitulation recalls the themes, the first in the bass clarinet, cello and violin, the second by strings and woodwind. The movement ends with the bass clarinet and strings.

IV. Allegro di molto -  The last movement is also in sonata form and consists of two themes that are based on Beach's original themes from the first movement. The first a spirited dance, the second played in the low strings is more lyrical. The development section uses both themes played in different keys. The recapitulation has the first theme repeated in E minor while the second theme is repeated in E major. The brass section ends the symphony on a note of triumph.

While Beach received solid training as a pianist, she only had one year of instruction in harmony and counterpoint and no formal training in orchestration at all. As a composer she was self-taught, a fact that is made all the more amazing after hearing her Gaelic Symphony  .

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