She was an extraordinary figure of her time. Just 26 years before women were granted the right to vote in the United States, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach composed a symphony that conquered Boston.
The “Gaelic Symphony,” as she titled it, was written in 1894. It was conceived in direct response to a call by prominent Czech composer Antonin Dvorak for Americans to break away from the European models they had for so long venerated. Instead, he urged Americans to open themselves up to their own surroundings to find what was uniquely American and forge a distinctive national sound. For a Boston resident, English, Scottish, and Irish melodies would have been natural resources.
To coincide with the 150th anniversary of Beach’s birth, the Westminster Community Orchestra is reviving this rarely heard work on Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m. at Princeton Meadow Road Church and Events Center. Also on the program is Felix Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” and a recent opus, “The Heroine’s Theme,” by Westminster masters composition student Caeleb Tee.
“Dvorak came to the United States in the early 1890s,” says Ruth Ochs, the orchestra’s long-time music director. “He became the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was brought with the express task of trying to create an American symphonic idiom. He traveled a bit, was exposed to certain musical repertories — popular music, folk music. He felt that the so-called ‘Negro spiritual’ was the musical material that likely could lead symphonic composers to such an idiom. That’s why his ‘New World Symphony’ has as its second movement a tune that sounds strikingly like a spiritual.”
The “New World Symphony,” now recognized as Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, received its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893. It was met with rapturous applause and immediately entered the standard repertoire. It remains one of the most popular of all symphonies. Dvorak recognized the value of the spiritual when he overheard his assistant, Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American student from Erie, Pennsylvania, singing to himself as he worked. Burleigh was only too happy to perform an impromptu recital for the delighted Czech. Burleigh himself would go on to become a composer and a recognized arranger of spirituals.
From his summer travels to the Midwest (he vacationed in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, and stopped along the way to take in Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota), Dvorak learned to appreciate the untapped vitality of American music as only an outsider could. He himself had emerged from the wildfire of nationalism that had swept from country to country across Europe, drawing on native dance and folk rhythms to arrive at an identifiably Czech sound.
Prior to his arrival in the United States, it had been the practice for American composers to emulate European models. In fact, many of them studied in Germany under composers like Engelbert Humperdinck, creator of the opera “Hansel and Gretel,” and Max Bruch, whose Violin Concerto No. 1, “Scottish Fantasy,” and “Kol Nidre” remain staples of the world’s concert halls. The result was a finely crafted though largely uninspired crop of homegrown knock-offs of masterworks by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms.
After Dvorak, Americans began to look to folk song as well as popular music and dances to arrive at something fresh — new music for a New World. The “New World Symphony” emulates not only African-American spirituals, but also Native American chants and dances. (It was inspired in part by a reading of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”) But these sources proved to be just as foreign to Beach as those of her European forebears.
“Amy Beach disagreed,” Ochs says. “She felt like there were other folk-like traditions that could inspire the symphonic idiom. She turned to a collection of Irish and Scottish melodies, a collection from the 1840s that gathered tunes that she felt represented her part of the country, New England, which she may have heard played in the parlor when she was growing up. It was her response, her working out of the idea that there’s another musical tradition that can inspire our composers that is also basically American.”
Beach was 30 years old at the time of her symphony’s premiere. It was the first symphony to be composed and published by an American woman. Known professionally as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach — acknowledging her husband, Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, as was the custom of the time — Amy Beach was a piano virtuoso who was largely self-taught as a composer.
“She was not professionally trained,” Ochs says. “She didn’t do the curriculum that every other composer did. Of course, at her time, they all happened to be male. She was not given the opportunity. Yet she pursued a course of study on her own that’s remarkable and admirable. She religiously attended Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts and listened to the repertory with score in hand.”
To be fair, it is rare to hear any American music, penned by man or woman, before Charles Ives and the generation that yielded George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, beyond perhaps the piano works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and marches by John Philip Sousa.
“We’re not necessarily hearing music by her contemporaries, either,” Ochs says, singling out John Knowles Paine, the first music professor in the United States. Paine founded the music department at Harvard University and later became the director of the New England Conservatory. He was the first American composer to really be recognized for his large-scale works, yet his music is very seldom performed.
“The community orchestra has performed at least two selections by George Whitefield Chadwick,” she adds. “He was another composer at the New England Conservatory. Paine and Chadwick were given the opportunity to travel to Germany to study. Amy Beach grew up in a very Victorian society with all the norms for a young lady born into that social group.”
Ochs herself was born in New England. She grew up on an apple orchard outside of Middlebury, Vermont. When her mother finally agreed to pay for music lessons, she took up the piano and the alto saxophone. “That’s what we had in the closet at home,” she says. “By the time I was in seventh grade I convinced my mother that I needed to play an orchestral instrument. I did do band and jazz ensemble in high school and enjoyed it, but I knew I wanted to play in an orchestra.”
She began to pursue the cello, which she continued to study along with piano, while majoring in music at Harvard. As if by decree of destiny, Amy Beach’s music would form an important part of her educational experience there.
“The main project that I did in order to graduate with honors was a thesis on Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat,” Ochs says. “Starting in my junior year I realized that there were resources both at Harvard and at New England Conservatory about Amy Beach, and I realized that this mass was under-studied. It was the first large composition that she wrote, obviously scored for chorus and orchestra. A big part of that project was thinking about who her compositional models might have been. It was a long project, but it got me very acquainted with her idiom and the types of problems that Amy Beach scholarship encounters.”
Ochs credits Liane Curtis, one of the teaching fellows at Harvard, with having introduced her to a number of women composers. Curtis founded the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, which has lent generous support for the upcoming performance of the “Gaelic Symphony” in Princeton. “They’ve given us some money to help offset rental costs,” Ochs says. “They’ve also shared a new edition of the Beach symphony with us. The organization is very supportive of orchestras and ensembles doing older music by women composers. Their feeling is that, okay, we have contemporary women somewhat represented on programs, thankfully, but there’s still a large batch of older music that, because of ingrained biases, is still not as welcomed into the repertory.”
Ochs graduated from Harvard and left for a year of study in Berlin, Germany, on a Fulbright scholarship. It was during her graduate studies at the University of Texas that she met her husband, also a cellist, Tomasz Rzeczycki. The couple came to Princeton, where Rzeczycki joined the faculties of Westminster Conservatory and Princeton Day School, while Ochs pursued a Ph.D. at Princeton University.
She has directed the Princeton Sinfonia for 15 years and is in her 12th year as conductor of the Westminster Community Orchestra. Under her guidance the orchestra has performed its share of music off the beaten path, alongside popular favorites of the standard repertoire. However, the choices have not always pleased everyone, including a vocal minority among her own musicians.
“Usually it’s the people who are not enthusiastic who will share their opinions, whereas those who are excited and enthusiastic will just roll with it,” she says. “I’ve been set back by some of those negative reactions, because I truly want everyone in my orchestra to enjoy things. Some people don’t mind doing the unfamiliar, but they still want it to be a familiar name. They might be okay with doing a lesser-known piece of Beethoven. If I said this was by Dvorak, they would have a different attitude. I’m very excited that I’m experiencing these struggles. It just reaffirms why we need to perform this music.”
Whipping together an orchestra made up of so many individuals, each with their own opinions and personalities, can be a challenge; perhaps it’s even more so when everyone is presumably there for their own enjoyment. But it’s only one of many hurdles along the way to making great music.
“I appreciate just learning what the challenges are for more truly amateur groups,” Ochs says. “I don’t anticipate them all. I didn’t anticipate all the challenges with Amy Beach. I truly thought it was going to be a bit more of a straightforward process learning it. It’s a very, very active piece. Everybody’s involved quite a bit for the entire symphony, nearly. But it’s complex. It’s a very participatory symphony, but it is also a dense work. It’s more challenging for them to make sense of.”
She believes strongly in the opportunities an orchestra like the one from Westminster can offer the Princeton community. She says she also feels extraordinarily rewarded when she believes the promise of those opportunities has been fulfilled. In addition, there is the satisfaction of feeding her curiosity about music as an art form. Everything comes together for her in a passion project like the “Gaelic Symphony.”
“I think if people understand the story and, really, the remarkable achievement of Amy Beach, they will better understand her significance. It took decades, really, before other women achieved what she did. She was a role model for subsequent generations. She was very supportive of other, younger women. At the MacDowell Colony, I think, she had sort of a following. Other women were there looking to her for inspiration. She composed less as time went on. Her husband was much older, and he had passed away by that point.”
Ochs says she believes it is especially important right now to be reminded that there were women who made very significant accomplishments in other eras.
“She broke a glass ceiling — I mean, she shattered it to pieces — with this symphony. It’s unprecedented. It was a leap forward like you couldn’t imagine. It’s taken a while for us to really appreciate that. That’s why I find our project is worthwhile. We’re reminding our audiences and ourselves of these different achievements. It probably would not have happened in Europe. It was living on American soil that allowed a woman of her drive to accomplish what she accomplished.”
Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, Westminster Community Orchestra, Princeton Meadow Church and Event Center, 545 Meadow Road, West Windsor. Saturday, May 6, 8 p.m. $10 to $15. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/events/westminster-community-orchestra-amy-beach.