Amy Beach (1867-1944)



Not just a "woman composer" but one of the most original, distinctive and gifted American musicians of the early 20th century.

Donald Macleod explores the music of Amy Beach (1867-1944).

More than a generation after her death at the venerable age of 77, Amy March Beach (n退e Cheney) is still dogged by a single phrase: "female composer".

Once upon a time, it was used by male critics as to criticise her supposedly 'inferior' music - now, in a postmodern, post-feminist age, Beach's life and output is endlessly reappraised for its symbolism - the achievement of a pioneering woman in a world of men - rather than for her remarkable musical abilities.

In truth, Amy Beach's life and work are extraordinary, regardless of her gender: arguably the first truly "American" voice to emerge from a continent still struggling to break free from the shackles of the European classical tradition.

Donald Macleod explores her journey from the tranquil meadows of New England to her headline-grabbing early successes as a virtuoso piano prodigy in Boston - and her burning childhood desire to compose.

We'll hear complete performances and extended excerpts from her collection of large-scale symphonic works, including her "Grand Mass" in E Flat, and "Gaelic" Symphony, as well as a rare performance of Beach's chamber opera, "Cabildo".

We'll also hear a number of works composed at the Macdowell Colony - a remarkable artists' retreat amidst the woodlands of New Hampshire where the middle-aged Mrs Beach, remarkably, assimilated a host of modern musical techniques into her expressive late-Romantic style.

Also spanning across the week are a number of Amy Beach's songs, from opus 1 to 152 - perhaps her finest and most lasting achievement, full of examples of her gift for intense, lyrical melody.

In the first episode of this week's series, Donald Macleod examines Beach's gargantuan "Grand Mass" in E Flat - the first to be composed by an American woman - and charts the composer's journey from piano prodigy to respected composer (and 'respectable wife').

Amy Beach's journey from piano prodigy to respected composer and 'respectable wife'.


Possessing American ancestry going back several generations, and having never studied in Europe, Amy Beach is often considered the first truly American composer.

In today's episode, Donald Macleod introduces her "Gaelic" symphony of 1897, written shortly after Antonin Dvorak had called on American composers to forge a new national identity in music.

He also introduces three songs on texts by Robert Browning, and a charming North Atlantic cousin of Elgar's 'Salut d'Amour'.

Donald Macleod on Amy Beach's Gaelic symphony - arguably the first real American symphony.


In less than a year, Amy Beach tragically lost the two most important figures in her life: her husband and mother.

Between them, they'd carefully guided her musical career - both encouraging her talents and clamping down on activity that they saw as 'unladylike'.

Suddenly, at the age of 43, Amy Beach was about to embark on a remarkable new chapter in her life: one with the freedom to compose and perform as she wished.

Donald Macleod introduces a complete performance of Beach's Piano Quintet, as well as a quartet of the composer's most playful and enchanting songs.

Donald Macleod explores the aftermath of the deaths of Amy Beach's husband and mother.


By the early 1920s, Amy Beach was an American musical institution - albeit somewhat steeped in the Victorian era.

Who would have expected, then, that aged 54, the composer would begin a remarkable new direction in her musical life, centred upon the idyllic Macdowell Colony - an artists' retreat deep in the New Hampshire woods.

There, Amy Beach composed an outpouring of evocative chamber works, fusing her own lyrical expression with more modern elements to create a uniquely personal musical style.

Donald Macleod introduces a pair of pieces evoking the Hermit Thrush's morning and evening calls, as well as major pieces for string quartet and one of the composer's most passionate songs.

Donald Macleod focuses on Amy Beach's experiences at the idyllic Macdowell Colony.

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Now well into her sixties, by the mid-1930s Amy Beach was finally beginning to feel her age.

Moving to Manhattan, she embarked on a remarkable final chapter in her musical life, producing some of her most distinctive songs and piano works, as well as a Creole-infused chamber opera, "Cabildo".

Donald Macleod explores the music of Amy Beach's last decade.

Donald Macleod focuses on the last decade of Amy Beach's life.