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Beach Storms Esplanade

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Amy Marcy Cheney Beach

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.

Charles Villiers Stanford

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.

6 Comments »

6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thanks, Liane Curtis, for encouraging more ensembles to perform Amy Beach’s music — historically important and also lovely to listen to.

    Comment by Amy Nathan — August 6, 2019 at 10:00 am

  2. The concert has been moved to NEC’s Jordan Hall, due to impending rain. See http://www.mercuryorchestra.org/ Great that there is a rain venue after all!
    Also I am making the the original version of this article available on the blog Feminist in the Concert Hall, https://wophil.org/love-amy-beachs-gaelic-symphony/

    Comment by Liane Curtis — August 6, 2019 at 4:23 pm

  3. Interesting article and I will be at the concert. However the gratuitous insult to Andris Nelson (“knows little about American music and clueless about Beach”) does not enhance the narrative and does nothing to promote the cause of neglected music, be it written by Americans, women, or anyone else.

    Comment by Dinah K Bodkin — August 6, 2019 at 5:42 pm

  4. The concert at Jordan Hall last nite with the Mercury Orchestra, Channing Yu conducting, was a splendid occasion- on many levels, hearing the Beach “Gaelic” Symphony, and watching Yu, who is an expressive and musical person. As a long advocate for Bech, I am aware of Curtis’ helpful work, getting the group together to promote the Beach name on Hatch Shell, and getting the Score and parts printed so musicians can read the parts. However it is regrettable to make remarks that degrade Andris Nelsons and Tony Fogg – both men are knowledgeable, Nelsons is aware of American composers, and so is Fogg- and both have shown enormous imagination and skill in programming- I wish everyone could enjoy the enormous strides that are being made, in accepting and promoting women conductors, composers, painters – being negative is not going to help the situation.

    Just my reaction- and frankly I am having the best years of my musical life- we are currently filming scholars, musicians, the Mercury Orch, for a Beach documentary that will air on PBS and be available to the world – so stay tuned……………….!

    Comment by virginiaeskin — August 8, 2019 at 11:55 am

  5. Need to correct two mis spellings – sorry- should be “Gaelic” Symphony
    and Channing YU

    Comment by virginiaeskin — August 8, 2019 at 5:26 pm

  6. Virginia Eskin: “However it is regrettable to make remarks that degrade Andris Nelsons and Tony Fogg – both men are knowledgeable, Nelsons is aware of American composers, and so is Fogg- and both have shown enormous imagination and skill in programming.”

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It’s not just your reaction, Ginny – I agree…and hats off to all for your advocacy on behalf of Amy Beach, whose work deserves the kind of recognition it once rightfully enjoyed.

    Comment by nimitta — August 10, 2019 at 7:11 pm

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