November 18, 2011 / Media - Entertainment, Opportunity, Uncategorized, Women's History

Women Pioneers in Music


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

A portrait of a young Amy Beach.

This weekend the National Symphony invited me to an evening at Strathmore (Washington area) entitled “Women Pioneers.”

The host was Madeleine Albright.

The program included
Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the common man”
Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the uncommon women”
Saint-Saëns “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso”
Amy Beach’s “Grand Mass in e flat major”

Violinist Chee-Yun performed the solo part of Saint-Saëns “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso,” originally composed for Pablo de Sarrasate, the Spanish virtuoso from the 19th century and she played brilliantly.

The grand mass from Amy Beach, performed by the 130-member symphony choir and about 70 instrumentalists including a harp and four vocal soloists, was Amy Beach’s first major composition. Amy Beach had no formal training in composition and undertook this work at age 19 and finished it in three years. It is in late romantic style with lush harmonies. It established Beach as a major American composer and as they said “one of the boys.”

Julia Ward Howe, a suffragist, wrote that this mass made evident the capacity of a woman’s brain to plan and execute a work combining great seriousness with unquestionable beauty. Amy Beach’s grand mass is magnificent, and it would be desirable to have the work recorded from the outstanding performers of the National Symphony. The mass is in Latin, and according to the program notes there are some flaws in the accentuation of Latin. For most of us, this would be of less concern. The Gloria and the Agnus Dei were my favorite parts. The interplay between soloists, instrument groups and choir is very interesting: at the beginning of the Agnus dei the celli and the harp communicate, then a soprano solo, followed by a duet, and a quartet and then the majestic choir building up and returning to the entrance movements of the Kyrie.

A loud thank you to the National Symphony for a great performance and particularly for reviving this great mass. Amy Beach had many successes during her life time, had support of her Harvard professor husband for her compositions and was very well received in 1892. This period ended -as I read in the program notes – when Antonin Dvorak became director of the National Conservatory for Music in New York and declared that there was ample musical talent in America, but that all that talent was male.

For a whole century the mass was not performed.

Amy Beach was a very gifted child, learned piano from her mother and gave public recitals at age 7, improvised duets before age 2, knew 40 songs by age one. At 18 she had her piano debut with the Boston Symphony, and soon married the surgeon and Harvard professor HHA Beach. At his request her concert appearances were restricted, but he supported her composing. She composed over 300 works, with a Gaelic Symphony and a Piano Concerto as larger works. She is the only female composer whose name is engraved in the granit wall at Boston’s “The Shell” where she joins 86 other composers.For further reading and resources read here: .

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