Amy Beach

Written by Harry Clark
Music by Amy Beach

1W: Seven different characters
2M: pianist and cellist
23M: pianist, singer, cellist

“I literally live the life of two people creatively, one a pianist, the other a writer. Anything more unlike the state of mind demanded by the two professions cannot be imagined, and that when I do one kind of work I shut the other up in a closed room and lock the door.”
Amy Beach, Etude Magazine

Who’d have thought with Europe’s 400-year head start in classical music that the first woman composer to make a living off her compositions, and a good one at that, would be New England’s Amy Beach?

I am a fan of her work and so I wanted to find a way to get around her reticence—a combination of Yankee self-containment, and a woman of her time and milieu. Amy Marcy Cheney, born in 1867, was a child genius as a pianist and composer. She was not exploited by her parents (a pleasant change) though she started composing at age four, performed with major orchestras including the Boston Symphony as a young girl, and was the first woman in the U.S. to compose a symphony, the first woman ever to write a Mass.

Shirley Knight

Sandy Duncan

We remember Beach through the eyes of six women: her mother, Clara Cheney; Maud Powell (America’s foremost violinist); Amy’s housekeeper, Mary McNamara; Marian MacDowell (wife of Edward and founder of the MacDowell Colony); Amy’s CPA, Ingrid Petersson; and Clara, a young admirer. The final vignette, the seventh, is Amy as an old woman, days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Mary McNamara, Ingrid Petersson and Clara are my imaginings as they help us understand things about Amy’s marriage, finances, and fame that neither Amy nor her friends would speak of.

Adrienne Block, Amy’s ardent and superb biographer, was a great help with my many questions. Adrienne confirmed for me a stunning fact: There is not a minute’s worth of her piano performance on tape, anywhere! But of course her compositions remain and modern audiences are now rediscovering the beauty of her late Romantic creations.

Sandy Duncan and Shirley Knight have tackled the piece with gusto.