Sunday, October 5, 2008

Amy Beach: Her Blissful Years in San Francisco

Amy Beach: Her Blissful Years in San Francisco, an exhibit of photographs, scores, sheet music and archival material focusing on the San Francisco works of classical composer Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, will be displayed in the Steve Silver Beach Blanket Babylon Music Center on the Library's Fourth Floor through December 4, 2008.

Amy Marcy Beach (Mrs. H. H. A. Beach) was one of the leading woman composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born September 5, 1867 in Henniker, New Hampshire she had precocious musical abilities. At age four she could play music by ear and had created her first piano pieces. She was endowed with perfect pitch – the ability to identify or sing and note on demand.

Growing up in the conservative Victorian New England her mother initially limited her access to music. Her talents were appreciated and encouraged, however, by her “Aunt Franc” -- Emma Frances Clement from San Francisco, who visited her in New Hampshire. In 1875 her family moved to Boston which afforded her the opportunity to advance as a pianist and become a successful performer. At 18 she married Dr. H. H. A. Beach. Acceding to her husband’s wishes she curtailed her concert performances, but with his encouragement she devoted her energies to composition.

She has been described by the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “the first American woman to succeed as a composer of large-scale art music.” While best known as a composer of works for the piano, choral music and songs, she also wrote large scale works for orchestra (The Gaelic Symphony and a Piano Concerto) and nearly a dozen chamber works.

While Amy Beach spent most of her professional career in the Northeast she made couple of important sojourns to San Francisco that contributed to her development as a composer. In 1878 she visited her Aunt Franc and her cousin Ethel Clement. She later wrote of San Francisco as the “city, which I had first learned to love at ten years of age when I spent a blissful year there.” After leaving San Francisco she corresponded regularly with her aunt and cousin who to whom she dedicated several works.

After the death of her husband in 1910 she was better able to travel and promote her works and spent several years in Europe. Beach was invited to San Francisco in 1915 to participate in the musical activities of the Panama Pacific Exposition. Her “Panama Hymn” commissioned for this occasion was performed frequently through the exposition. Enjoying the company of her family in San Francisco she considered taking up permanent residence in our City, even registering to vote here in 1916. During this period she participated actively in the City’s musical and social life and composed several works.

Ultimately Amy Beach returned to the East Coast. She finished her days in New York, passing away there on December 27, 1944.

Amy Beach in 1878, photographed at Louis Thors' Photography Studio, 1025 Larkin Street, San Francisco (photograph courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of New Hampshire)

This exhibit benefited greatly from the research of Adrienne Fried Block, in particular her book Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and from Gail Smith’s collection The Life and Music of Amy Beach: The First Woman Composer of America. (Pacific, Missouri: Creative Keyboard Publications, 1992). We also received assistance from Roland Goodbody, manuscripts coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, The Special Collections Department of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, the MacDowell Colony, Marie Harris of Barrington, New Hampshire, Helene Whitson of Berkeley, and Carol James of San Francisco.

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