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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.