Important things sometimes happen in out-of-the-way places, c.f. Sarajevo, Galilee. While the performance of Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat Major, op. 5, that took place Saturday at Holy Name Church in West Roxbury under David Carrier’s baton doesn’t quite rise to those levels, it nevertheless signified in recent music history, as possibly the first Boston performance of this unjustly neglected piece since its premiere by the Handel and Haydn Society under Carl Zerrahn in 1892.
The occasion, of course, the sesquicentennial of Mrs. Beach’s birth as Amy Marcy Cheney, allied with the impending publication of a new critical edition of the full score by Matthew Phelps. The conductor and choral director in Knoxville was on hand to supplement his program note with a discursive history of how he became involved in the project. Our colleague Liane Curtis admirably summarized all this in her preview article, here.
As to the work itself, Phelps’s remarks emphasized the structure of this mass (so titled in the published piano-vocal score; called Grand Mass in the full score manuscript) as a “cantata mass” like the Bach B-minor, rather than the symphonic mass as pioneered by Haydn—the differences being chiefly in the former’s splitting of the six principal sections of the Latin Ordinary into multiple discrete and self-contained musical numbers (nine titled ones in the Beach, plus several self-sufficient subsections of the Credo and Agnus Dei, and a lagniappe movement we’ll mention later), and her use of some unusual instrumentation, such as the solo organ that accompanies the Kyrie’s opening, and the trumpet in F rather than the usual one in B-flat.
We quibble with a few things Phelps said, mostly with his rehash of the trope that Beach’s Mass was neglected all those years (there were performances and recordings in the 1980s) because of her sex. While one can’t get inside the heads of the people who didn’t perform it, Boston’s long-standing reputation as a place friendly (within the bounds of social propriety) to women’s literary and artistic endeavors (while H&H’s performance of the Mass was a breakthrough, the BSO performed Beach’s orchestral music eight times between 1895 and 1931) suggests the reasons lay elsewhere. That there was nothing symphonic by Beach played locally between 1931 and 1999, when the BSO under Keith Lockhart revived her Gaelic Symphony, suggests that the reasoning was probably the same as for Beach’s male colleagues of the Second New England School—their pre-Modernist style was considered obsolete. And the program note needs correcting. Beach was not the first major American composer never to have studied abroad; that distinction belongs to Arthur Foote.
On this night, the Mass proved yet again a success, and it would have been so even if it had not been the first substantial piece this composer wrote (it took her three years to complete, starting at age 19). Autodidact as composer, she was free of stylistic prejudices that one detects in her colleagues, most of whom studied with teachers in the Brahmsian tradition. That means she absorbed a great deal more of Wagnerian chromaticism and instrumental practices, and was much given to flashy harmonic changes to mediant and submediant degrees (that is, degrees of a third up or down from the tonic of the moment—it’s definitely a “wow” effect when you hear it, and in Beach one hears it a lot).
The chorus begins the Kyrie begins with stunning demureness, with organ accompaniment (played with serenity here and throughout by Heinrich Christensen), and when the orchestra enters, along with the soloists (Dana Lynne Varga, soprano; Vera Savage, mezzo; Matthew Anderson, tenor; and Sean Galligan, baritone), the harmonic movement begins as well. It’s evident from the beginning that Beach is taking a spacious approach to her text setting (one of the few wrong-footed aspects of the work is that the Latin prosody is over-stretched and the syllabification is frequently off—even at Church of the Advent the liturgy is in English). One problem in the performance was that the soloists were placed in front of the chorus but behind the orchestra, and in the cavernous church, they were too often covered. One always hesitates to recommend miking, but a discreet boost could have been helpful here.
The first part of the Gloria (Beach took fully four movements to set all the text) is appropriately peppy, though we suspect that Carrier smoothed down some rhythmic edges that could have been sharper. A look at the score (available here) confirms that Beach seemed determined to go through as many keys as possible, and Carrier’s tight, precise direction moved everything forward without any need to reach for the Dramamine. The Laudamus and Qui tollis sections were both on the slow side, and featured the soloists, with the former sporting a delicious colloquy between soloists and harp (Maria Rindenello-Parker) and a lovely alto solo in which Savage displayed a creamy sound and narrow vibrato, but a touch of weakness in the low register (the part is written for alto, but one hardly sees such parts sung by true altos any more). The latter is ingeniously laid out with individual chorus lines against the combined soprano, alto and tenor soloists. The Quoniam concludes the Gloria text with a vigorous fugue, full of those deft harmonic turns and some glossy orchestration, which the brasses and winds of the New England Philharmonic dispatched with panache, while Carrier maintained a firm command of balance among the sections.
Between the four-part Gloria and the Credo, Beach inserted a movement called Graduale, which doesn’t appear in the 1890 vocal score (it was published separately a few years later) but which featured in the 1892 premiere. The story is that H&H had a star tenor (whose name hasn’t been mentioned in any sources we’ve seen, so if there’s a reader out there who knows, please chime in in the comments) whom Zerrahn wanted to feature, so Beach obligingly set an aria for him using an exogenous text for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is also (for the Roman Catholic Church) a patronal feast day for several countries, including the United States. Beach’s setting is lyrical (with suggestions of Arthur Sullivan!), and Anderson brought to it a solid, unfussy, resonant dignity. The accompaniment is rich in wind sonority, and we especially commend the oboes (Sandra Ayres and Lilli Samman) for their suave and touching rendition.
The Credo, presented as a single movement, is actually three in one (guessing that’s no coincidence). In the opening part, whose music combines a rushing motive in the violins with abrupt brass punctuation, the soprano gets to stand out, and Varga’s silvery tone projected with authority. That this section was also amply upholstered with those third-degree harmonic shifts seems calculated, comparable to Bach’s musical crosses. In a blissful organ interlude between the opening section and the Incarnatus, wide-ranging harmonic changes are anchored by a sustained pedal tone, before the soprano rejoins with a delicately lyrical tune. The Resurrexit is appropriately up-tempo, but set, somewhat surprisingly, in minor mode.
The Sanctus opens with the English Horn (kudos to Colton Ray Cox) against pizzicato strings, a lovely effect that moves us to remark on Beach’s penchant for the “alto” sonorities, including those F trumpets, and the relative prominence given to the alto soloist in contrast to the soprano. The Benedictus finally gave the baritone a leading line, and Galligan came through with a fine sturdy and steady sound. This movement features a very Wagnerian horn chorus, to which Jeff Stewart, William Prince, John Kessen and Michael Koehrsen contributed a perfectly blended, rotund response.
A curious contrast of ominous Wagnerian basses against the ethereal harp opens the Agnus Dei. (Beach’s orchestration is never less than fascinating, and was as up-to-date as could be; while “black in the brass” has become something of an American stereotype, we’re guessing it would have been difficult for the H&H orchestra of 1892 to bring off). Plenty of chromaticism follows, along with some more contrapuntal interest in the solo parts, before reaching a fine climax. The serenity of the Kyrie returns, though not its music, which a more “symphonic” approach would probably have required.
The audience had ample justification to believe that they had just heard a remarkable and historic restoration of an unjustly neglected choral gem. We found it a lot easier to hear, more colorfully orchestrated and more interestingly harmonized, than other well-regarded late Victorian choral works, say by Stainer and Parker. Of the two recordings of the Mass made in the 1980s, the less said the better. Although a mostly volunteer effort, this performance was on an entirely different level, and with the publication (slated for 2018) of Phelps’s edition of the score, there should be many more performances. We hope somebody at Commonwealth Chorale is thinking about a possible recording with these forces, whose splendid effort ought not to be ephemeral.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.