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Beach, Amy (Marcy Cheney), 1867-1944



  • Existence: September 5, 1867 - December 27, 1944


Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was the foremost American composer of the Romantic period and the first American woman to achieve major success as a composer. She was born September 5, 1867, in Henniker, New Hampshire, the only child of Charles Abbott Cheney and Clara Imogene Marcy Cheney. A child prodigy, Beach received her first musical instruction from her mother, composed her first work at age four (Mamma’s Waltz), and began performing publicly at age seven.

Her parents were unable financially to send her abroad to study, and instead turned to the music community in Boston (where they had moved in 1871). Beach studied piano with Ernest Perabo and Carl Baermann, and harmony and counterpoint with Junius W. Hill. These lessons were to be her only formal training. She learned orchestration and fugue by translating the treatises of Louis Hector Berlioz and François-Auguste Gevaert. Beach’s first published work was The Rainy Day (1880), a setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1883, at age 16, she made her professional debut as a pianist, and shortly thereafter became a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Her development was watched closely by a circle in Boston society which included Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Mason and Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. Dr. Beach was a socially prominent physician, a lecturer on anatomy at Harvard, and a well-schooled amateur singer and pianist. Amy Cheney and Dr. H.H.A. Beach were married in 1885, at which point Amy Cheney began using the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach professionally. Following the expectations of Victorian society, Beach curtailed her touring and spent her days at home composing.

Many of Beach’s works were granted premières by major orchestras, such as Mass in Eb, Op. 5, performed by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston in 1892; the concert aria Eilende Wolken, Op. 18, performed by the New York Philharmonic Society also in 1892; and Symphony in E-Minor, Op. 32, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896. Other works were the result of commissions, such as Festival Jubilate, Op. 17, composed for the dedication (May 1, 1893) of the Women’s Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; Song of Welcome, Op. 42, for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition (1898); and Panama Hymn, Op. 74, for the International Exposition in San Francisco (1915). These were the first occasions on which many musical organizations performed music by a female composer. Beach’s Symphony in E-Minor (also known as Gaelic Symphony) is acknowledged as the first symphony composed by an American woman.

Dr. Beach died June 28, 1910, and on September 5, 1911, Amy Beach sailed for Europe to begin three years of touring as a performer in Paris, Rome, Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, and many other major European cities. At the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, Beach returned to the United States, eventually settling in New York City. A triumph for the American musical environment, Beach was already scheduled for 30 tour dates on both coasts prior to her arrival stateside. As was her routine, she would perform concerts throughout winter and spend summers composing at her home in Centerville on Cape Cod, a home purchased solely with the proceeds from her song Ecstasy.

In 1921, Beach became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she developed friendships with other artists there, among them playwright Thornton Wilder. Over the next twenty years she composed many of her later works at the artist colony, including the piano pieces The Hermit Thrush at Eve and The Hermit Thrush at Morn, and the one-act opera Cabildo. In 1928, Beach received an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of New Hampshire. Hailed as one of America’s most prominent composers and performers, she was granted two retrospective concerts of her songs and orchestral music on her 75th birthday.

Beach’s legacy created remarkable breakthroughs for others, particularly women, in music. Many of her works show the influence of late Romantic American composers such as Horatio Parker, Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote and George Chadwick; but she also reflected the ideas of Brahms and Debussy. These influences are not absolutely direct, but subtle, for the majority of her compositions consist of her own idiomatic style (both delicate and elaborate) and her natural gift for melody. She is best known for her songs, symphony, and the opera Cabildo; and was recognized for her early contribution to the preservation, documentation and transcription of American birdsongs.

Amy Cheney Beach died December 27, 1944, of heart failure.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Amy Cheney Beach Collection

Identifier: MS-0089
Scope and Contents The Amy Cheney Beach Collection, housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections, was purchased from the MacDowell Colony by the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the early 1970s. The collection consists of over 30 manuscript scores and over 60 published scores of original compositions by Beach. Also included is a handwritten correspondence from Beach to the Toledo Times Company.The manuscript scores include dated (1872-1933) and undated works. Many of...
Dates: 1872 - 1943