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A melody wrapped in an enigma: Johanna Magdalena Beyer’s ‘IV’

On April 28, the Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble presents a concert including “IV,” a pioneering work by one of the 20th century’s most singular and enigmatic composers: Johanna Magdalena Beyer. Born in Leipzig in 1888, Beyer permanently emigrated to America in 1923; like much about her, her life before then remains mysterious. Settling in New York, she studied and taught piano. She joined the circle of so-called ultramodernists — Ruth Crawford Seeger, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell (with whom Beyer was especially close), musicians fascinated by dissonance, clusters, and disjunct sound. She died in 1944 after a six-year battle with ALS; her last scores were dictated to an amanuensis.

And then she was forgotten. Most of her fragmentary biography wasn’t limned until composers John Kennedy and Larry Polansky began research in the 1990s; other scholars, Amy Beal and Melissa de Graaf especially, have teased out further details from correspondence, government records, and archived concert programs. But she is still shadowy, her personality most clearly glimpsed in her experimental, daringly idiosyncratic music.


The majority of Beyer’s few public performances came at Composers’ Forums sponsored by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. The weekly concerts included question-and-answer sessions — discussions that were, to Beyer and other female modernists, condescending and dismissive. Beyer, intensely shy and solitary, with a German accent, faced unusually harsh criticism. She responded with a choral salute to the Composers’ Forum, serrated counterpoint over an incessantly repeated three-bar piano vamp: “you are being criticized on the spot whether you like it or not,” the voices sing. That wry resilience fuels much of her work.

“IV” was the only piece of Beyer’s published in her lifetime, appearing in an issue of Cowell’s “New Music” journal. The open instrumentation — nine unspecified percussion instruments (on Thursday’s concert, the piece will be heard twice, with two different batteries) — was radical. So was the rhetoric: layered, deceptively simple seven-to-the-bar patterns, volume and speed continually waxing and waning. (The puzzle of the seemingly runic title was only solved decades later, upon the rediscovery of the manuscript of the five-movement suite from which “IV” was excerpted.)


In fact, as a stream of newly unearthed scores can attest, Beyer was fiercely prolific. Her music anticipates so many qualities of the later, outwardly divergent but similarly process-driven schools of modernism and minimalism: confrontational, cleansing sounds; ritualistic rigor; austerity that shades into deadpan wit; persistently rational procedures that channel the emotional heft of an obsessive quest. With solitary industry, Beyer blazed bright trails.

Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble performs music of Andy Vores, Henry Cowell, Johanna Beyer, Glenn Kotche, John Bergamo, and Christian Wolff on April 28 at 8 p.m. at the Boston Conservatory Theater. Free. www.bostonconservatory.edu

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.