It may come as a surprise to those who still think that American music began in the 1920s that our composers of the late 19th century could turn out work on the level of the top names in Europe, if not the Three Bs (though we’re fully prepared to make the case that Ives should be considered in that league), then certainly only one tier below. For primarily cultural reasons relating to how people learned music in the 19th century, until fairly recently virtually all the American composers who were instrumental masters were pianists, going back to Gottschalk and William Mason (who both studied with Liszt). It should not therefore come as a surprise that some of those composers produced full-blooded Romantic piano concertos, and there are three big bow-wow concertos written before 1900 that measure up to the rigorous standards of the European Romantic piano concerto, which British composer Judith Weir has cheekily characterized as a branch of the martial arts. The Big Three in this category are the D minor Concerto No. 2 of Edward MacDowell, from 1889, the B major concerto of Henry Holden Huss, from 1894 (we hear the chorused bafflement out there; it’s not on YouTube, but you can hear Ian Hobson’s recording on Spotify), and the C sharp minor concerto by Amy Beach, from 1899 (premiered by Beach with the BSO under Wilhelm Gericke in 1900).
In her sesquicentennial year, much of Beach’s important music is being presented anew in hopes of catching an audience. This concerto is definitely among her most significant pieces, and it certainly deserves to endure. It was the last of her three big orchestral works of the 1890s, after the Mass in 1890 (presented locally last week and reviewed here) and the Gaelic Symphony in 1893, and indeed her last significant orchestral work before two cantatas from the late 1920s and early 1930s. It gave her the opportunity to show off her chops in both composition and performance (fun facts: Beach performed the BSO premieres of both the Mozart 20th and Beethoven 3rd piano concertos in the 1880s). Local audiences got a decent taste of it this weekend, as Randall Hodgkinson performed it Saturday and Sunday with the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra, under Neal Hampton (we saw the Sunday performance on the very crowded stage of Slosberg Recital Hall at Brandeis).
The concerto gets off to a tantalizing start, with a sturdy principal theme that evokes both Dvořák’s New World Symphony and the opening of the MacDowell D minor (which Beach’s dedicatee, the great pianist Teresa Carreño, had performed with the BSO in 1899). There are turns of phrase in the writing reminiscent of Rachmaninoff, whose music Beach would not likely have known in 1899, and of Tchaikovsky, which is a good deal more likely, but also some harmonic turns of a distinctly American character, with a modal and pentatonic bent. The second subject, lyrical but with granite New Hampshire ribs, is the first of several themes in the concerto derived from Beach’s already burgeoning song catalogue. Hodgkinson achieved the perfect balance here of tenderness and strength. The development section offers harmonic riches as well, with lovely dappled shading that Hampton brought out to fine effect. As a lagniappe, Beach graces her first movement with a structural twist—maybe not an original innovation, but certainly unusual—by interposing the cadenza between the recapitulation and the coda, where its “second development” function stands out. And throughout, there is ample virtuosic razzle-dazzle that did not go unnoticed by reviewers of the premiere, who marveled at Beach’s deftness, just as we commend that of Hodgkinson.
What doesn’t get much mentioned in writings about the Beach concerto is that it adopts a four-movement format rather than the usual three, the precedent for which was the Brahms Second. Beach’s entry for the scherzo was not like the tempestuous one Brahms wrote, but a fleet-footed Perpetuum mobile based on another Beach song (we are indebted to Claire Fontijn of Wellesley College and our BMInt colleague Liane Curtis of Brandeis for their pre-concert talk, among other things exploring the use of Beach’s songs in this concerto). To our taste, the feet of this movement could have been fleeter in execution, but it ended on a deliciously elfin turn by Hodgkinson. The slow movement derived its main tune from yet another song (both this and the one from the scherzo set poems by the composer’s husband, Dr. H. H. A. Beach), describing a dusky and ghostly woodland scene, of the sort that MacDowell found irresistible. Curtis’s program note described the movement as somber and rhapsodic, with “stormy emotional outbursts.” The performance didn’t quite live up to that billing, with inadequate attention to dynamic nuance. The last line of Dr. Beach’s poem dissolves the gloom in a bath of morning sunlight, but Mrs. Beach withheld this until the attacca finale, a rondo with strong flavors of Chopin and an effectively noisy conclusion.
In our discussion of Beach’s Mass, we mentioned the characteristically American penchant for brass sonorities, and the scoring of Beach’s concerto are yet another indication that this country’s soundscape would be distinctive (having to do with our ubiquitous marching bands, perhaps?). Whereas the woodwinds were deployed in the usual pairs, with customary doublings, the brass contingent was laid on with a palette knife: four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and tuba. Percussion, which became a seriously big thing a bit later in our music history, was limited to timpani, but Beach applied subtle touches, particularly at the exit from the cadenza (a nod, perhaps, to the accompanied cadenza Beethoven wrote for the piano version of his violin concerto), sensitively realized by Sam Stern. This journal does not normally cover non-conservatory student orchestras, but in this case the massed Brandeis-Wellesley forces largely rose to the occasion; and while nobody would mistake them for a professional ensemble they provided solid support for Hodgkinson and a fine case for hearing this concerto again (and again).
Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, the Enigma Variation, coming after intermission, bears some interesting connections with the Beach concerto. First off, both were written in the same year. At the time, Beach was 32, at the height of her fame, and the concerto was yet another in a string of triumphs that made her one of the most famous composers in the country; Elgar was 42 (the ten-year difference in their ages extended to their dates of death as well, both at the age of 77) and still an unknown provincial, until this piece put him on the map. While Elgar rose to acclaim as England’s finest composer since Purcell (an unfair statement, giving not enough weight to several others we could mention), Beach’s star faded after World War I (though she continued to write some superb music, notably her string quartet and piano trio). Do not heed those who ascribe this to sexism. A simpler explanation is that British musical conservatism persisted long enough for Elgar to be well established as the sound of Old Blighty before he, too, was more heard of than heard, while Jazz Age America brushed its sharp-elbowed way past Beach and the other superlative composers of her era. Many others of them—Chadwick, Foote, Huss, Converse, Mason, Nevin, MacDowell, and Carpenter—need to be rediscovered and cherished.
There are just so many hours in a day, a week, and a semester, and getting the Beach right was a major effort for which the orchestra and its leader should be justly proud. When it was clear that Hampton had drilled his forces on some particular feature of Enigma, the results were ear-catching and impressive; otherwise, not so much. We observed some fine sweeping gestures by Hampton that elicited a good response. You can’t do this piece without lavishing care on Variation IX, “Nimrod,” and the effort paid off. The sectional cohesion of the brass for the blasts in Variation XI was commendable, as was the overall effect of Variation XIII and the Finale.
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.