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The Dartmouth
May 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Shi: Female Composers, Forgotten

What we can learn from Amy Beach.

Classical music is generally thought of as a pretentious genre written by European men, for European men. Classically trained musicians typically spend their formative years of study learning works by canonical European male composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; only after do they get the chance to study more contemporary music.

Like many of my peers, I grew up learning the piano and violin. Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Antonio Vivaldi were among the composers whose works we normally studied. When I was 11 years old, however, I heard “Romance, Op. 23” for violin and piano. This wonderfully passionate piece was my first exposure to Amy Beach. It was also my first exposure to a composer who was neither male nor European.

Beach was born on Sept. 5, 1867 in Henniker, New Hampshire. By the time she was a year old, she could accurately hum 40 tunes in the key that she first heard them; before she turned 2, she knew how to improvise counter-melodies to anything her mother, a talented pianist and singer, performed.

Despite Beach’s prodigious musicality, however, her parents delayed her career as a concert pianist for several reasons. Her mother, who had a deeply religious background, wanted her daughter to grow up with a sense of humility, which meant that her enormous talent was downplayed so that Beach wouldn’t become a prideful child. Additionally, women were expected to stay at home and care for their children — music and other artistic pursuits weren’t meant to be anything more than forms of social recreation. Careers for women outside of the home weren’t socially acceptable during the post-Civil War period, and there was a stigma attached to women who performed onstage that the Beach’s middle-class family sought for her to avoid.

Yet Beach still managed to achieve major success in her lifetime. With minimal compositional instruction, she built her extensive musical knowledge by deconstructing, copying and memorizing entire scores of symphonies. In an interview, she once compared this memorization to the rigorous dissections of a medical student. Her memory was an encyclopedia of music theory and notation, to the point where she could write music in her head without playing it out on instruments first.

Beach was the first female composer in the United States to gain recognition for writing large-scale classical pieces. Her “Gaelic Symphony” was the first symphony written and published by an American woman. The symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim, and Beach gained a reputation as one of Boston’s most prominent composers.

She was also one of the few composers of her era to gain recognition from Europe’s music scene while having never received European training. Beach defied all stereotypes with her compositions while conforming to Victorian social norms by downplaying the brilliance of her work and musical achievements. Even so, she was recognized as one of the most talented composers of her generation.

Why, then, is Beach not a part of our present-day repertoire?

Unlike many other female composers who have fallen into obscurity, Beach has not been forgotten by musical history, in part because of the success she gained while she was alive. Yet few people in modern times have even heard of her name — a startling contrast to her contemporary reputation. Beach’s absence from the canon of notable 19th-century composers contributes to the perception that women didn’t write music before the 20th century, which simply isn’t true.

Beach herself was aware of this danger. In a rebuttal to Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s claim that women didn’t have the compositional talent to contribute to American music, Beach noted that “from the year 1675 to the year 1885, women have composed 153 works.” Beach herself disproved his claim. In addition to orchestral pieces, she wrote dozens of works for choral groups, voice and keyboard, chamber ensembles and solo piano.

Beach pushed for the recognition of female musicians and composers, and she mentored numerous young women at The MacDowell Colony, an artist’s retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She used her status as a respected, successful composer to further the careers of young musicians — she joined the Music Teachers National Association and the Music Educators National Conference and she was a founding member and first president of the Society of American Women Composers.

People should stop thinking about classical music as the work of white European men from centuries ago. Beach worked tirelessly to make classical music more accessible to the public, and she was instrumental in defining American classical music as a movement in its own right. Current-day ignorance of her music is more than just disrespectful — it erases the work of an entire generation of female composers. It is vital that people recognize Beach’s importance and acknowledge the dozens of other women, including such luminaries as Florence Price and Nadia Boulanger, who wrote classical music during the 19th and 20th centuries; people can begin by learning more about them in the music classroom and having more major orchestras perform their work in the concert hall. To ignore the contributions of women composers is to accept the erroneous idea that classical music is and will always be a static art form created by European men for the elite.