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Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, New Hampshire Composer

Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, Portrait by Apeda, c. 1900.

Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire on September
5, 1867. A child prodigy, she began composing music at age four and performing publicly at age seven.
The home-tutored pianist first entered Boston’s musical community at the age of eight. Because her parents could not afford to
send her abroad, she received further musical training in Boston. At the age of thirteen, she accompanied her piano teacher, Ernst
Perabo, to the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Shortly thereafter, Miss Cheney put the the words of Longfellow’s poem,
“The Rainy Day,” to music. It was her first published song. (Read Longfellow’s account of the visit.)
In 1883, at age sixteen, she made her professional debut as a
pianist. Afterwards, she became a soloist with the Boston
Symphony Orchestra.

In 1885, the eighteen year-old pianist married Dr. Henry Harris
Aubrey Beach
, a prominent Boston physician who was 25 years her
senior. She changed her professional name to Mrs. H. H. A. Beach
and, at the request of her husband, she shifted emphasis from
performance to composition. (Read a letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes.) With the exception of an annual
recital, presentations of her own works, and occasional solo
performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Beach devoted
the majority of her time and efforts to writing music.
Most of Mrs. Beach’s compositions were published and many were
performed by leading artists and ensembles. In 1892, the Boston
Handel and Hayden Society premiered her first major work, the
Grand Mass, Opus 5. The subsequent acclaim her work received
established her as a composer and led to her first commissions.
The 1896 Boston Symphony performance of her Gaelic Symphony in E
Minor, Op. 32 (recognized as the first symphonic work by an
American woman) helped confirmed Mrs. Beach as one of the
country’s leading composers. See a copy of Leopold Stokowski’s assessment of the Gaelic Symphony.

Throughout her life, Beach wrote more than 150 numbered works
ranging from chamber and orchestral works to church music and
songs. Her early works show the influences of Wagner and Brahms,
but she added her characteristic intensity and passion. In her
later years, she moved beyond the late-Romantic style as her
works became more chromatic and dissonant. Nevertheless, she
retained an intense lyricism throughout her career as a composer.

Manuscript Score of “Hermit Thrush at Morn,” Opus 92, No. 2, 1922.

Following Dr. Beach’s death in 1910, Mrs. Beach embarked on a
three year tour of Europe. She resumed her career as a performer
and changed her professional name to Amy Beach. However, upon
returning to the United States, Beach once again assumed her
married name. For the next thirty years she continued to compose
and perform. Between tours, Beach resided in New York City and
her cottage at Centerville on Cape Cod.

Between 1921 and 1941, Beach was an annual visitor at the
MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She wrote most
of her later works while at the Colony, including her two famous
piano pieces, “The Hermit Thrush at Eve” and “The Hermit Thrush
at Morn.” Her annual visits to the Colony enabled her to
maintain contacts with family and friends in nearby Henniker and
Hillsboro, New Hampshire. Beach also developed friendships with
other “Colonists,” such as founder Marian MacDowell, Russian
sculptor Bashka Paeff, and playwright Thornton Wilder. In 1928,
Beach and Marion MacDowell received honorary Master of Arts
degrees from the University of New Hampshire.

Portrait by Bachrach,
taken at the McDowell Colony, 1934.

Failing health hampered Beach’s activities and travel during her
final years. A worsening heart condition limited her concert-
going and eventually confined her to her New York apartment. She
died of heart failure on December 27, 1944 at the age of 77. In
her will, she left the rights to her music to the MacDowell
Colony, which continues to receive royalties from her many
compositions.