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Irish themes, reimagined in music

This Wednesday provides two distinct examples of an eminent Bostonian engaging with issues of nationalism and immigration. At the Hatch Shell (weather permitting), the Mercury Orchestra offers Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony in E minor, while at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, organist Janet Yieh performs Beach’s Prelude on the Irish folk tune “The Fair Hills of Eire, O!”

The two Irish-themed works bookended Beach’s career. The Symphony’s 1896 premiere marked the 29-year-old Beach’s entry into the upper echelon of Boston composers, with fellow composer George Chadwick welcoming her as “one of the boys.” The Prelude was published in 1943, the year before Beach’s death. Both reveal a complicated consideration of musical nationalism.


Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony closely  followed that notable provocation vis-à-vis American music, Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” exemplifying the Bohemian composer’s assertion that Negro spirituals could be the basis of a specifically American school of classical music. Beach found that prescription too limiting for a country as diverse as the United States. (She also judged Dvorák’s work incongruously “light in caliber” given the African-American experience of slavery and discrimination.) To replace spirituals with Irish folk tunes might seem to be just as restrictive, but Beach mined them for a more complicated expression of transnational identities.

For the opening movement, Beach borrowed from her song “Dark Is the Night,” about a stormy sea voyage, underlining realities of emigration and diaspora. Beach ensured the folk tunes she used had provenance predating the Great Famine, an important benchmark for those promoting the revival of Irish culture — including upwardly mobile, increasingly influential Irish-Americans. Scholar Sarah Gerk has traced the influences on the Symphony’s form and technique: not only Dvorák, but also works by Camille Saint-Saëns and Johannes Brahms, placing the music within a cosmopolitan range of European tradition. As Gerk has written, the Symphony is not just Irish or American, but a dialogue among “transatlantic networks, Irish-American communities, and Amy Beach’s Boston.”


The Symphony’s nationalism is complex. In Beach’s late Prelude, it becomes downright blurry. Beach had previously fashioned “The Fair Hills of Eire, O!” into a 1922 piano showpiece, all dramatic shifts and virtuosic flourishes, heightening the aura of brooding Irish Romanticism while proclaiming its artistic substance. The 1943 version sometimes is listed as a revision of that earlier work, but it is almost entirely new: the sturdy operatic harmonies replaced by undulating chromatic eddies, the mercurial drama reimagined as a slow-rolling build and retreat. Irish, American, or Irish-American elements are obscured by a rich, unsettled mist. In the midst of a war driven by extreme nationalism, Beach resituated folklore in a context seeming to emphasize music’s inherent intangibility: an art too elusive for borders or labels.

The Mercury Orchestra performs works of Charles Villiers Stanford and Amy Beach, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Hatch Shell, Esplanade (weather permitting). Free. Janet Yieh performs music of Mendelssohn, Vierne, Beach, Laurin, Elgar, Thalben-Ball, and Widor Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Methuen Memorial Music Hall. Admission $12, children $5. 978-685-0693,

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at