Magazine article Musical Times

Boston Bluestocking

Magazine article Musical Times

Boston Bluestocking

Article excerpt

Boston bluestocking

ANDREW THOMSON

Amy Beach, passionate Victorian: the life and work of an American composer 1867-1944

Adrienne Fried Block

Oxford UP (New York & Oxford, 1998); xiii, +09pp; 14.50 pbk. ISBN 0 19 513784 1.

The American obsession with progress and experiment has for too long led us to devalue such European-oriented conservatives such as Edward Macdowell, Horatio Parker and Amy Beach. In her enthusiastic yet mainly balanced biography of the last of these, dubbed `the Dean of American women composers', Adrienne Fried Block - a leading New York figure in the study of women in music - makes a strong case for Beach's life and musical achievements. Extensively researched in the social and cultural areas, her book is most informative on her puritanical upbringing and sound education by devoted parents in nineteenth-century Boston, a self-absorbed close-knit society, intellectually and ethically high minded, formed by strict Unitarian religious principles. Indeed, throughout her life Beach never wavered from her deep belief in absolute music as a force for moral redemption - however anachronistic this would come to appear in the more disturbed decades after the First World War. Yet in the main she comes across as a robust no-nonsense character, generous minded and altruistic, entirely different from the priggish, humourless proto-feminist Olive Chancellor in Henry James's great novel The Bostonians (1886).

Amy Beach in fact seems to offer little joy to modern feminism. Her advanced training as a pianist and arduous selftaught study of composition took place under the enlightened domination of her husband Henry Beach, an eminent Boston surgeon, in comfortable circumstances and without a whiff of rebellion on her part. It is immensely revealing of the prevailing culture and its double standards that whereas Henry fully encouraged her active career as a composer, he severely restricted her appearances as a concert pianist in the interests of social propriety. She was not permitted to accept fees, and worked under her formal married name of Mrs HHA Beach - humiliating for a modern woman if not for her. These controversial issues Ms Block discusses with commendable moderation, displaying none of the moral outrage of a Kate Millett; in their conventional attitudes to marriage and careers for women, both Amy's traditionally minded parents and Henry himself are properly judged by nineteenth-century norms rather than by present day liberalism.

Only after Henry's unexpected death in 1910 could Amy break away from this pattern of existence and become an independent self-supporting artist, successfully promoting her own compositions in recital tours throughout Europe and America. Otherwise, she mounted little challenge to the status quo in her ceaseless round of regular churchgoing, caring for relatives, running Beach Clubs for musical children and encouraging her fellow women composers. Photographs reveal her conventionally dressed, complete with handbag. In total contrast to her English contemporary Ethel Smyth the crusading suffragette, her political allegiance was to the right-wing Republican Party - though nevertheless prepared to play for Democrat Eleanor Roosevelt's soirees at the White House - and, like Stravinsky, even became an admirer of Mussolini. Her private life did include a Platonic friendship with gay New York organist David McKinley Williams, as well as close intimate relationships with various sopranos - notably the versatile Marcella Craft, who could both sing and dance the title role in Strauss's Salome but nothing of a lesbian nature is even hinted at.

Stock's very positive personal reactions to the music are evident in the comprehensive descriptions - all too often a biographer's Achilles' heel - which, together with extensive illustrations, certainly arouse the reader's interest in it. At the same time, many issues made familiar by Marcia J Citron's influential Gender and the musical canon (1993) are fully germane to Beach's own career, confronted as it was by entrenched male attitudes to women composers. Much critical and journalistic writing of the period is quoted by Stock to the effect that women's inherent abilites lay in songs and salon pieces, rather than the intellectual constructionalist challenges of symphonic composition. Paradoxically, it was the perceptive Henry Beach above all who encouraged his dutiful wife whom he could see to be highly intelligent as well as profoundly musical - to tackle her large scale compositions, the Mass setting, 'Gaelic' Symphony and Piano Concerto; premiered by the resident Boston conductors Emil Paur and Wilhelm Gericke, these works achieved considerable public and critical acclaim, together with the admission that she had extended the woman's sphere in art. Of course she also wrote numerous songs and piano pieces, yet I feel that nothing quoted in this book is as conventionally feminine and sentimental as MacDowell's To a wild rose.

Progressive and reactionary attitudes coexist uneasily in Beach's involvement with ethnic music, first encountered by her at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Indeed, it was DvorAk who (perhaps naively) bad recommended negro spirituals and work songs as vital sources for an authentically American art music, in the face of Darwinian anthropological opinion which placed black people at the lower end of the evolutionary spectrum. While sincerely appreciating their music's `heartbreaking griefs' - which she considered the `New World' Symphony did not properly express - Beach nevertheless displayed her intrinsic New England mentality by denying that AfroAmericans were really any more native than Italian, Swede or Russian immigrants. To her, by contrast, traditional English, Scottish and Irish songs represented the true American musical heritage; indeed, she made her own answer to the `New World' by using four Irish folk melodies in her own 'Gaelic' symphony (1897). Subsequently, however, she would cast her net more widely, as in her 1904 Variations on Balkan themes for piano (responding to Turkish atrocities against the Macedonians), and in the String Quartet (1929), in which three melodies of the Alaskan Eskimos determine its lean textures. each's first creative phase, reflecting the Germanic musical culture of Boston, is predominantly late romantic and Brahmsian in style. Subsequently, as a result of her first revelatory visit to Europe in 1911-14, her fascinating postwar works are strongly influenced by the advanced musical language of Debussy Ravel and Scriabin, notably in their nonfunctional wholetone and added seventh based harmonic passages; moreover, post-- Tristan chromatic saturation in parts of the String Quartet brings to mind Alban Berg's early compositions. It was a natural growth for a vital composer who had her ears keenly attuned to new developments, and could selectively integrate what she wanted into her own personal idiom.

A lover of nature, she even anticipated Messiaen with her exactly notated bird songs in such piano pieces as The hermit thrush at dawn (1922). Nevertheless, it seems to me that Block in her zeal for her subject somewhat overstates the modernity of these later compositions ,verging on atonality', for in her consistently grateful intrumental writing and comparatively mild level of dissonance there is nothing at all comparable with the disjunct melodic intervals, extreme harmonic complexes and fantastic textures of Schoenberg's radical Drei Klavierstucke op. 11. To complicate matters, a new form of the male-female dichotomy had arisen in the 1920s women were now deemed unsuited to writing highly dissonant modern composition, to which in any case Beach remained overtly hostile.

Amy Beach, passionate Victorian is attractively produced as well as being eminently readable in a homely American style, and Stock rightfully pays tribute to her meticulous copy-editor Barbara B. Heyman; but I did spot a ghastly split infinitive `to simultaneously establish', more characteristic of an illiterate business communication than Oxford University Press. Although its New York based music books division has happily preserved the `Oxford z' as in `organization', I should point out that American spellings - such as 'favorite' and 'checks' - are surely out of place in the main text of a book representing an august British publishing institution.

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