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How to Write an American Symphony:

Amy Beach and the birth of "Gaelic" Symphony

A young Amy BeachIn 1894, Amy Beach (1867-1944) began work on her Symphony in E-minor, ("Gaelic"), completing it in 1896. Four of the symphony's themes are traditional Irish-Gaelic melodies, hence the designation, "Gaelic." In choosing Irish music, Beach tapped into a rich heritage that had been part of the American musical mainstream for at least a century, and by the 1890s, was assimilated into the new genre called popular music.

Beach, who signed all her music "Mrs. H. H. A. Beach," was the youngest member of the Boston composers' group, the country's first school of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in the small town of Henniker, New Hampshire, at age four she began playing piano and composing. The family relocated to Boston in 1875, where she made her piano debut at sixteen, playing Moscheles Piano Concerto in G minor with orchestra. Critics found her musicianship and technical equipment superb. At her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1885, she earned glowing reviews for her performance of Chopin's F-minor Concerto .

Equally gifted in composition, her first big success came when Boston's Handel and Haydn Society gave the premiere of her Mass in E-flat, op. 5, a 75-minute work for solo quartet, chorus, organ, and orchestra. The premiere of the "Gaelic" Symphony, on 30 October 1896 was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She was now "one of the boys," or so composer George Whitefield Chadwick wrote, signaling acceptance by the established Boston composers: men were symphonists, not women.

Headlines celebrated the work as the first symphony by an American woman, stressing her gender but ignoring any nationalist implications. No critic declared it an American work; yet it fit one contemporary definition of a nationalist work, that it draw on the music of any ethnic group in the United States.

European composers--deFalla in Spain, Grieg in Norway, the Russian "five," Debussy and D'Indy in France, and Smetana and Dvorák in Bohemia--were borrowing from their ethnic musics to create separate and distinct national styles. The issue of cultural independence from the dominant Austro-German school surfaced late in the United States. By 1896, however, with manifest destiny realized in the conquest of the west, Americans had a new sense of national identity, together with pride in its democratic traditions, and in its industrial and military power. The next goal, some believed, was American cultural autonomy.

Amy BeachAntonín Dvovák would, with the death of Brahms in 1897, inherit the master's mantle as the leading European symphonist as well as a Czech nationalist composer.. To Jeanette Thurber, the organizer and patron of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorák was the ideal person to encourage the creation of an American-sounding concert music. She invited him to serve as Director of the Conservatory and its teacher of composition. The composer, who arrived in September, 1892, and stayed until '95, took both assignments seriously. Eight months after settling in New York, Dvorák named his preferred source for an "American" concert music, telling the press that American composers could find every emotion and mood in the melodies of African-Americans, specifying plantation songs (i.e., spirituals and work songs) and minstrel show music.

The Boston Herald asked its leading composers to respond to Dvorák's statement. John Knowles Paine, trained in Germany and the first professor of music at Harvard, rejected Dvorák's idea, seeing no need for nationalist music. George Whitefield Chadwick and Arthur Foote agreed with Paine, although in practice they wrote a number of compositions influenced by Irish and Scottish music. Amy Beach, the youngest of the group, noted that, over the centuries, vernacular music had reinvigorated art music, and agreed with Dvorák about the need for a distinctive American music based on ethnic and traditional idioms. She disagreed, however, with Dvorák's recommendation because of her lack of familiarity with black music. She wrote: "We of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by the old English, Scotch, or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors." By her choice of themes for her "Gaelic" Symphony, she was following her own advice. Furthermore, she wrote that the symphony had a program--the sufferings and struggles of the Irish people, "their laments...their romance, and their dreams."

Beach's decision was more defensible than she might have realized. Irish songs entered into the American musical mainstream in 1808 with the publication of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies in 1808; many editions followed. Throughout the nineteenth century, Moore's songs could be heard in middle-class parlors and on theater and concert stages across the nation. Among the favorites were "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms," "The Minstrel Boy," and "The Last Rose of Summer."

The songs of Stephen Foster soon rivaled Moore's in popularity. Foster, himself of Irish descent, incorporated Irish musical characteristics into his songs: "Ah, May the Red Rose Live Alway," as well as "Gentle Annie," and the famous "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" all have a Gaelic lilt to them. Foster also composed songs and fiddle-tunes for black-face minstrel shows. In addition, many actors and writers for the musical theater were themselves Irish, played Irish characters, and sang Irish-inspired music. The most famous was the late nineteenth century team of Harrigan and Hart, whose realist plays--with music-- held a mirror to the Irish poor of New York. As a result, Irish music crossed class and ethnic boundaries, to become familiar to much of the population.

Amy Beach, who believed that the older the tunes, the more authentic, found her source for the symphony in a collection published in 1841 by a folk-song collector in Dublin. A lively fiddle tune appears as the closing theme of the first movement, orchestrated to recall the chanter and drone of the bagpipe. The first and second themes, however, are Beach's own, borrowed from her turbulent sea song, "Dark is the Night," op.11 no. 1. The monothematic second movement has as its theme a Gaelic love song, first presented as an oboe solo, next by the full woodwind choir, and repeated by strings. For the middle section of this movement, Beach transformed the same love song into a fast, perpetually moving, theme that recalls the scintillating scherzos of Mendelssohn. Two Irish songs, one a paean to Ireland's natural beauty, the other a lament for a dead child, are the themes of the third movement, the two melodies varied, developed, and combined. Beach wrote that the original themes she composed for the Finale are Irish in style. Their dance-like rhythms, large leaps, and soaring melodies bring this generously-proportioned symphony to an energetic close.

Amy Beach and Boston ComposersThe symphony had a sturdy performance life following its premiere: the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave it twice in Boston, and once each in Brooklyn and New York, and orchestras across the country and in Germany followed. The work was a watershed for Beach, who thereafter used vernacular melodies--especially Irish and Scottish-- as themes in about thirty of her three hundred compositions. Neglected after Beach's death, the symphony has made a recent comeback. Its performance on 9 January 2000 on the American Composers Orchestra's "Roots" concert reaffirms the "Gaelic" Symphony's importance as an early nationalist composition by a pioneer in the development of an "American" music

--Adrienne Fried Block, 1999

Block's biography, Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer (Oxford University Press, 1998) has just won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.


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