In recent years there has been a lot of conversation about the contributions of women composers and the programming of their music by major orchestras, chamber ensembles, and solo artists. Last December, I was excited to learn that the New England Philharmonic was performing a little-known work by Amy Cheney Beach entitled Jephthah’s Daughter. An aria written for soprano and orchestra, Jephthah’s Daughter was completed in 1903, but never received a full orchestral performance during the composer’s lifetime. The story behind this 118-year delay had little to do with the quality of the music and more so to do with the intriguing nature of the composition’s disappearance and rediscovery. I’ll get to that later as the December performance reminded me of how radical and revolutionary Amy Beach was for her time.
At a time when women’s music making was restricted to the home, and they had limited access to the training and performing ensembles that made life as a composer possible, Amy Beach became one of the most acclaimed American composers. She radically shifted the conversation about women and their roles in music, and her music was representative of larger conversations being had about what constituted the “American” sound.
Born in 1867 Amy Beach was only one of a collective of female composers that came to prominence in New England during the last decade of the 19th century. Helen Hopekirk, Clara Kathleen Rogers, and Margaret Ruthvan Lang. Like these women, Amy Beach showed considerable intellectual and musical ability at a young age. She taught herself to read by age three and by the age of four she was already composing her own melodies. Her family supported her talents, and she began studying piano and harmony formally. Remarkably, Beach never studied composition in a formal way. She taught herself by studying the orchestral scores of well-known European composers. The result was a well-developed musical voice and a prolific catalog of works by the time of her death in 1944.
While she was successful as a concert pianist, Beach’s most enduring legacy lies in how she challenged prevailing views about women as composers. She became the first American woman composer to have her works performed regularly. In 1896 she made history when her Gaelic Symphony (Symphony in E minor) became the first symphony by a woman composer to be performed by a major orchestra. This composition thrusted Beach in the middle of a larger conversation about the construction and promotion of an “American” sound in classical music that was initiated by Antonin Dvorak in 1892 when he assumed the directorship of the National Conservatory in New York.
Nationalism was an artistic movement that was spreading across Europe as political and geographical lines that defined nationhood were being erected. American composers had yet to engage fully in this movement in 1892. Incidentally, Dvorak had been associated with the rise of a Hungarian nationalistic style with his adaptation of folk melodies in his works. But back to Amy Beach! The conversation about an American sound proved to be very complicated as no one singular racial or ethnic identity framed the fullness of American identity. Beach’s musical and ideological response to Dvorak’s call for the promotion and creation of an “American” nationalistic sound was her Gaelic Symphony. It was the first orchestral work to use Irish folk melodies as its major themes and it represented how Beach directly addressed the tensions that existed between Boston’s Irish American and white, upper-class communities. Through this composition, Beach validated the experiences and culture of the Irish people at a critical time when the anti-Irish sentiment was high. The work remains one of her best known and most performed works.
Over the next forty-eight years she would write in many different mediums—solo piano works, choral, orchestral, and chamber works. Many of these works were performed regularly, but not Jephthah’s Daughter.
Beach wrote Jephthah’s Daughter during a period of significant achievement and was believed to have been inspired to it by her friend, acclaimed soprano Marcella Craft. In 1911, following the death of her husband and mother, Amy Beach traveled to Europe with Craft in hopes that she might perform the work. Afterall both had become highly acclaimed in Europe by that time. The performance never happened and as both prepared to return to the US because of the impending war, Beach asked friends to transport her scores back with their belongings. A trunk these scores, including Jephthah’s Daughter was packed in, was seized by the Germans. It was believed to have been lost forever, but in 1928 the trunk was recovered. The following year Beach retrieved her scores, but the work was never performed in her lifetime. The December 2021 orchestral performance of Jephthah’s Daughter and the continuous programming of her Gaelic Symphony are reminders of Amy Beach’s importance in the early history of classical music in America. But it also reminds us that women composers and musicians have made considerable contributions to classical music.