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. …

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