In a rare concert, the return of Amy Beach
In December 1893, Amy Beach, a pianist and composer living in Boston, heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. She was not a fan. In a journal entry, Beach complained that the symphony was too light and cheery, lacking the emotional weight to fully convey “the negro character and life” that had inspired Dvorak. He could have added so much more, she wrote, “of the dark, tragic, side!”
Shortly after hearing the “New World,” Beach began writing a symphony of her own. Like Dvorak, she would look to an indigenous folk music for inspiration. But she felt no connection to the world of African-American spirituals, as Dvorak had; instead, she drew on Celtic folk music, selecting several Irish tunes and using them as material for invention and elaboration.
The BSO premiered Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony on Oct. 30, 1896. A colorfully scored work that was by turns turbulent, nostalgic, and triumphant, it was enthusiastically received by the audience and generally well reviewed. She quickly became known as the first woman to achieve public success as the composer of a large-scale symphonic work, and George Whitefield Chadwick, an eminent Boston composer, cheekily pronounced her “one of the boys.” The piece was performed by the BSO several more times that season and the next, and other orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, took it up as well.
After the first few years, though, the piece began to fade, and by the time Beach died, in 1944, it had largely disappeared from the symphonic landscape. It’s not entirely clear why. It may have had something to do with biases against Beach as an American composer, or as a woman, or both. Or her musical language may simply have fallen out of favor.
The neglect in Boston, not only of the symphony but the rest of Beach’s oeuvre as well, is particularly difficult to understand, however. The BSO has never again programmed the “Gaelic,” and in fact has not performed a complete orchestral work by Beach since 1917. Though there have been occasional local revivals of her works, as there were around the sesquicentennial of her birth in 2017, she remains a curiously underappreciated composer in the city where she achieved her breakthrough.
So it’s welcome that the Mercury Orchestra, an ensemble whose activity takes place in the summer, is offering a rare performance of the “Gaelic” on Aug. 7, in a free concert on the Esplanade presented by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Channing Yu, the Mercury’s music director, wrote in an e-mail that in looking for composers who are “underrepresented or absent from today’s version of canonical repertoire,” he was particularly impressed with the way Beach takes “the raw power of some earnest, poignant, yet mirthful Irish folk songs and, with great craft, seamlessly and naturally weaves them into multiple complex layers of the symphonic form at the peak of Romanticism.”
Her achievement is all the more notable for the fact that Beach, a prodigiously talented pianist from an early age, was an autodidact in composition. As Vanderbilt University musicologist Douglas Shadle recounts in his book “Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise,” when Beach’s parents sought the advice of Wilhelm Gericke, then the BSO’s music director, on their child’s compositional training, Gericke said that Beach should teach herself by studying great scores rather than attend a prestigious European conservatory. “In other words,” Shadle writes, Gericke “would deny her the path that [John Knowles] Paine and Chadwick had been able to follow.”
She was, however, astonishingly gifted, which made it possible for her to teach herself to compose. Sarah Gerk, an assistant professor of musicology at Binghamton University and a scholar of 19th-century American music, wrote via e-mail that Beach was “a fantastic study, and she learned by absorbing music to the extent that she memorized entire orchestral scores of numerous works. She regularly attended Boston Symphony concerts having memorized all the music beforehand, and upon hearing it, she worked to understand how notes on the page translate into a balance of sounds.”
The extent to which Beach’s popularity in her own time was affected by the fact that she was a woman is a matter of debate. In a recent interview, Shadle said that in early histories of this period of music, discussion of Beach’s talent was always qualified by the fact that she was “a woman composer.” “And then eventually, by the 1930s, writers looking back at the 1880s and ’90s will even start to omit her altogether, as a less important person, even though she’s still writing chamber music and songs,” Shadle said. “They tended to leave her out of that scene in favor of Paine and Chadwick.”
That’s why, he continued, an important message is sent by playing historical works by women composers, independent of the artistic reasons. “It shows that history was never as one-dimensional as concert programs make it out to be. . . . It really changes the kinds of questions that we ask about history in the first place — we shouldn’t even begin with the premise that the way the canon turned out was the way it was destined to be, that it’s a pure construction of human activity.”
Gerk called the piece “an incredibly nuanced and complex piece of music that was not fully understood during Beach’s lifetime” and “still suffers in unwarranted dustbins.” Shadle noted that many critics have labeled the symphony “academic,” in the way it dutifully follows a preexisting model, not an unjustified charge.
But, he added, the symphony “stretches beyond this in its coloration and inventiveness. So much music from this period is not melodic and tuneful. So the fact that she was able to give it that pizazz makes it special.”
Presented by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. At DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, Charles River Esplanade, Aug. 7, 7 p.m. Free. 617-987-2000, www.landmarksorchestra.org