Concert to be held at Jordan Hall Wednesday at 7:00
Two decades ago, through this author’s efforts, Amy Beach’s name joined the Hatch Shell’s listing of 87 male composers. This Wednesday, August 7, at 7pm, the Mercury Orchestra will perform her monumental Gaelic Symphony, in E Minor, along with Charles Villiers Stanford’s Phaudrig Crohoore (An Irish Ballad), for a nominally Irish concert. (Canceled if rain.)
The Mercury performance shows that the grassroots momentum of re-recognizing Beach’s musical achievement continues. The Boston Globe’s fine recent preview details the BSO’s surprising neglect of the composer since 1896, when they premiered the Gaelic; they last played a complete orchestral Beach work 102 years ago. The unveiling of her name in 2000 at the Hatch Shell preceded a Pops concert including Beach works under Keith Lockhart.
Because the Gaelic includes Irish tunes, it is sometimes assumed that Beach was Boston Irish, even though her New England family background was distinctly something other. (A local review from a couple years ago comically erred on this point.) Moreover, she married into Boston’s elite class, and for her to demonstrate musical sympathies with Irish immigrants could hardly have made sense within her circle; indeed, musicologist Sarah Gerk suggests that anti-Irish sentiment accounted for some of the (few) negative reviews that Beach’s Gaelic Symphony did receive. That the composer would step across class boundaries to express compassion for poor foreigners continues to resonate.
Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy (I am president) produced a new edition of Beach’s symphony in honor of the 150th-birthday anniversary, in 2017. We are thrilled to have helped many dozens of performances take place using these materials, newly edited and engraved by Chris A. Trotman. In the 2017 and 2018 seasons a range of orchestras performed Beach, from Maine to California and Anchorage to Albany Georgia, including student and community ensembles along with professional groups. Wide, but missing that highest echelon: the top tier of U.S. orchestras. David Weininger’s Globe preview mentions that anti-American bias, not only sexism, has compromised Beach’s legacy. Indeed, biases remain a problem among the highest-ranking orchestras. Andris Nelsons appears to know little about American music, and is clueless about Beach. BSO artistic administrator Anthony Fogg seems to regard Beach as a local novelty, not the major figure on the international stage that she was in her own day and may be becoming again now.
The revival of Beach’s works for large ensembles has come through openminded artistic leadership, listening to the enthusiasm of audiences and musicians and exploring off the beaten path of the canon. We trust this interest is now beginning to trickle up: in April the Minnesota Orchestra performed the Gaelic. That was a genuine breakthrough. And performances by other ensembles continue, from Boston’s own Eureka Ensemble last year to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and many more. Dedicated musicians in the trenches of musicmaking every day are building a fan base for Beach’s orchestral music. One wonders if the BSO will be the last to notice.
Charles Villiers Stanford is perhaps best known as the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Rebecca Clarke, and for some Anglican hymns. But he too composed prolifically, though his music is rarely played, especially in the US. His choral-orchestral ballad Phaudrig Crohoore premiered the same year as Beach’s symphony, at the Norwich (UK) Festival. Sheridan Le Fanu’s lively narrative tells of a bold, craggy Irishman with a heart of gold (preview). Stanford biographer Jeremey Dibble suggests that because of the “mannered colloquial … ‘stage Irish’ text,” we don’t often hear the ballad; Wednesday’s performance will be one of the few in the US in 100 years (performance history). Dibble observes that for some Victorian choristers, use of the word “divil” and reference to possibly licentious behavior on the part of the hero made the text unsingable, resulting in the work’s being censored. The wider public knew the poem, however, from public readings, so the lack of performance has continued to frustrate Stanford advocates.
Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc. Her website is here.