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Not Just "One of the Boys" - Amy Beach

Dvorak (in 1892): “I am afraid the ladies cannot help us much. They have not the creative power.”
Amy Beach: Hold my cocktail.

Though her orchestral output is relatively small, Amy Beach accomplished a great deal in only a few pieces, ultimately becoming the first American woman to compose a symphony. Mass in E-flat (1890), Beach’s first large-scale premiere, was generally well received, though, as would be throughout her career, compliments were perpetually backhanded. Reviews included “deeper resources of the science of music... difficult to associate with a woman’s hand,” and “considerable ability in her orchestration... somewhat of a surprise to the majority of the audience.”

Beach’s resolve appears to be secure, as she then proceeded to compose the highly regarded ‘Gaelic’ Symphony in 1897. Here, we have the essence of Beach and her developing compositional voice. It is a remarkable work for many reasons, not the least of which is that Beach had little to no experience and zero formal training in orchestration. Her marriage to Dr. H. H. A. Beach came with the request that she not perform for money or take composition lessons, though he still encouraged her to work and compose (uh... what?). Though Beach educated herself in composition and orchestration, in the case of the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony one can hardly tell. Showing certain European-Romantic influence, the symphony is lyrical, dramatic, and quite virtuosic, replete with a palpable Irish flavor. Beach’s score spills over with large sweeping gestures, powerful climactic moments, and long unfolding melodic lines. The overall effect is powerful, in a way that we would only expect from a legendary composer.

Amy Beach was a needed figure in her time, an advocate for both women and American music. It is of little doubt that her compositional output may be more prolific had she created at a different period in history.

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